Rimjin-gang source: North Korean army units understrength due to draft-dodging

He reported that “According to an officer of the Military Service and Mobilization Division, the number of new recruits is only around 86% in proportion to the number of discharged soldiers.  Since the military is facing recruit shortage, the state authority has ordered to conscript every potential recruit–except people with a serious physical problem.  Therefore, the division has already started to go to each school to carry out medical checks for the next recruitment in the coming spring.  It is because parents often scheme to prevent their children from getting drafted–such as faking sickness–when the recruitment season approaches.  This time, the Military Service and Mobilization Division has intended to conduct medical checks before the evasion occurs.” [Rimjin-gang]

On one level, this report fits with multiple reports of low morale, lean rations, and rampant disease in some North Korean army units. I’ll also offer a major caveat to this story: many North Korean military units are really just glorified construction brigades. I often suspect that the soldiers in those units are drafted as much to keep North Korea’s population of young men busy, tired, and under close observation as for the labor they perform. The regime can afford to let those non-elite units be hollowed out without a significant impact on readiness, at least until it calls on those units to suppress local unrest, or to replace losses in front-line units in the event of war. To assess impacts on military readiness, focus on front-line units, especially those along the western corridor of the DMZ and along the Yalu River border with China. Nonetheless, the story is indicative of changing attitudes in North Korean society. That’s a trend we should be doing everything we can to catalyze.

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China’s latest cheating on North Korea sanctions is a test for Trump

Like most people, I would prefer that the new President of the United States refrained from conducting diplomacy by Twitter. Without endorsing the medium, I gave a qualified endorsement to the message President Trump sent to China when he accused it of not helping to reign in His Porcine Majesty. Trump was right about this, of course. Over the last several years, the U.N., no less, has published a wealth of evidence that China has (almost certainly willfully) violated the North Korea sanctions it voted for in the Security Council. Here’s the latest example:

26. Decides … that the DPRK shall not supply, sell or transfer, directly or indirectly, from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft, coal, iron, and iron ore, and that all States shall prohibit the procurement of such material from the DPRK by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of the DPRK, and decides that this provision shall not apply with respect to:
. . . .
(b) Total exports to all Member States of coal originating in the DPRK that in the aggregate do not exceed $53,495,894 or 1,000,866 metric tons, whichever is lower, between the date of adoption of this resolution and 31 December 2016 …. [UNSCR 2321, Nov. 30, 2016]

Just eight weeks later, the inestimable Leo Byrne cites customs data showing that China imported twice the amount of North Korean coal permitted for the remainder of 2016:

Customs figures show Chinese traders imported over 2 million tonnes of coal in December, up from 1.9 million the previous month. North Korea’s received $168 million for the commodity, a figure over three times that outlined in Resolution 2321. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

So yesterday, a reporter asked the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s mouthpiece to explain herself.

Q: [I]t is stipulated in Resolution 2321 of the UN Security Council that the imported coal from the DPRK by 31 December 2016 should not exceed one million ton or 54 million US dollars. Statistics recently released by China’s customs shows that China’s volume of coal imports from the DPRK in December 2016 exceeded the cap. What is China’s comment on that?

A: On your first question, it is a shared obligation of UN member states to implement resolutions of the Security Council. According to Chinese laws, it is required for the Chinese government to issue a statement for actions taken to implement Resolution 2321. This is a regular practice of the Chinese side. The statement by relevant Chinese ministries is one such step. The list of dual use items and technologies annexed to the statement is a verbatim quote of the list in the resolution.

The mouthpiece is referencing this belatedly updated list of things Chinese companies aren’t supposed to export to North Korea, unofficially translated here, at NK Pro.

On your second question, let me point out that Resolution 2321 should be implemented in a comprehensive and balanced manner. And it is not only China who should implement the resolution. The resolution called for solving the issue of the Korean peninsula through political and diplomatic means. I would like to ask, what efforts have been made by other relevant countries? [ChiCom Foreign Ministry]

The mouthpiece implies that China’s compliance with the sanctions resolutions is conditioned on “other relevant countries … solving the issue of the Korean peninsula through political and diplomatic means.” But the resolutions impose no such obligation or condition. The argument is spurious. It’s also circular, because North Korea’s first demand in negotiations will surely be that we stop enforcing sanctions, meaning that China’s de facto position is that it won’t comply with sanctions unless we lift sanctions.

Specifically on your question, competent authorities of China issued a statement on 9 December, immediately after the adoption of Resolution 2321 by the Security Council, ordering the suspension of coal imports from the DPRK until 31 December 2016. The Chinese side have taken measures in line with the requirements of the resolution and fulfilled its own international obligation. [ChiCom Foreign Ministry]

China’s obligation under Resolution 2321 does not end with issuing a statement and then forgetting about it. Surely China, which can have Jingjing and Chacha at a dissident’s doorstep 20 minutes after an offending Weibo post, can’t expect us to believe that it can’t enforce its laws. Surely China, whose customs authorities know how to detect and hold up shipments when doing so serves Beijing’s interest in bullying its neighbors, can’t expect us to believe that it can’t enforce its customs laws. When confronted with evidence of a violation of a U.N. sanctions resolution China voted for eight weeks ago in a clear, blue question, China’s mouthpiece gave a vague, red answer. That answer shows contempt for the United Nations and the United States.

For eight years, Barack Obama mostly kowtowed in the face of a whole course of aggressive Chinese conduct. Obama’s passivity pleased many “China hands” in academia, but worried our military, shook the confidence of our allies, and yielded some grave setbacks for peace and security in an economically vital part of the world. The most menacing of these is Kim Jong-un’s alarming progress toward nuclear breakout. Beijing acts as if it does not understand the risk of war if sanctions fail, or the risk that this war would involve China. Either that, or China sees a nuclear North Korea as useful for China’s plans to dominate northeast Asia.

For all that was wrong with the Obama administration’s North Korea policy, the former President did lay down a marker in blocking the assets of the North Korean military-controlled companies responsible for most of the coal exports. To the extent that Chinese importers purchased from those designated suppliers or failed to limit North Korean coal imports as required under U.N. resolutions and Chinese law, the U.S. has the authority to freeze the Chinese importers’ dollars. Alternatively, it could invoke section 205 of the NKSPEA to increase the inspection of cargo arriving at U.S. ports from Chinese ports that facilitated violations of the coal cap. This is a test for the new Trump administration. We’re about to find out if Donald Trump’s tough talk is more than just talk.

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God and Eric Hoffer in North Korea

Since yesterday’s post, I’ve had a chance to watch the interview with Thae Yong-ho. Thae said many interesting things, but none was so striking as the point when, about 9 minutes into the interview, he talked about the good fortune of getting his family to South Korea and said, “God help[ed] me.” Thae did not strike me as an emotional or spiritual man. He has spent his whole life shielded from religion. We know that his political conversion was a gradual one; therefore, it’s improbable that he has undergone a sudden religious conversion since his recent defection. His religious views will probably evolve, just as his political views evolved.

No doubt, Christians will seize on this statement as validation of their own beliefs.  I’m not religious myself and felt no validation of my own beliefs, but I was deeply moved as a father who felt compassion and solidarity for another father. I’m also very interested in the political implications of Christianity’s appeal to North Koreans, especially in light of Thae’s explicit call for the North Korean people to rise against the state. Of course, to rise against such an oppressive state is to risk death, and worse. To resist such a state is in the collective self-interest, but strongly against the individual self-interest. Only fanatical* belief can motivate people to sacrifice one’s self for the collective interest, as Eric Hoffer put it in “The True Believer,” his classic work on the nature of mass movements:

The vigor of a mass movement stems from the propensity of its followers for united action and self-sacrifice. When we ascribe the success of a movement to its faith, doctrine, propaganda, leadership, ruthlessness and so on, we are but referring to instruments of unification and to means used to inculcate a readiness for self-sacrice. It is perhaps impossible to understand the nature of mass movements unless it is recognized that their chief preoccupation is to foster, perfect and perpetuate a facility for united action and self-sacrice. To know the processes by which such a facility is engendered is to grasp the inner logic of most of the characteristic attitudes and practices of an active mass movement. With few exceptions, any group or organization which tries, for one reason or another, to create and maintain compact unity and a constant readiness for self-sacrifice usually manifests the peculiarities—both noble and base—of a mass movement.

If the validation Christians feel from Thae’s mention of God is that even the most persecuted people feel, and hunger for a connection with, God’s presence, I can acknowledge that they may have a point without necessarily adopting their spiritual views. We know that many North Korean refugees have become committed Christians. Surely there are multiple explanations for this. Initially, North Koreans contact Christianity because it’s usually only Christians who (at great individual risk, but in the collective interest of the church and humanity itself) care enough to help them. Perhaps they continue to attend church out of a sense of gratitude, or because it helps to meet their material needs. They may become believers because the church gives them a sense or community, or fills the spiritual void left by the false god they’ve rejected. Thae, however, didn’t rely on missionaries to feed him or smuggle him through China, and the South Korean government has obviously welcomed him with open arms. He doesn’t need a church to be his support network. His comment suggests that appeal of religion to North Koreans transcends songbun, and that one cannot explain its appeal in solely material terms.

The point I’m arriving at is this one: if North Koreans are to respond to Thae’s call to organize and rise against the state, religion — specifically Christianity — will play an essential role. In the same way that the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas built political movements on a foundation of social services in their dysfunctional societies, churches could use the strategies I described here to build clandestine social services inside North Korea itself. Only a religious belief so fanatical that it overcomes an individual’s self-interest and awakens the collective self-interest can cause people to take the risk that entails.

* I don’t use the term pejoratively, but as Hoffer did, to describe any belief strong enough to overcome the believer’s individual self-interest.

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Thae Yong-ho is giving North Korean resistance a voice & a vision it never had

Sometime today, Arirang TV will publish an exclusive, hour-long English-language interview with Thae Yong-ho, who was North Korea’s Deputy Ambassador to the United Kingdom until the day last August when he gathered his two sons and gravely told them that he was cutting off their “slave chains.” NK News has a summary of the interview here. I’ll link it when Arirang posts it. (Update: Here’s the full interview, and a Wall Street Journal story on Thae by Jonathan Cheng.)

Of course, Thae isn’t the only North Korean diplomat to defect last year, nor is he even the highest-ranking North Korean to defect (Hwang Jang-yop was). He isn’t exactly a public intellectual in the sense that former court poet Jang Jin-sung is, and even now, no North Korean emigre exceeds Jang’s polemic talents or charisma in the use of the written word. Yet none of those men had Thae’s charisma in the spoken word, in either English or Korean. In retrospect, the glowing assessments of Thae’s skills were more than the soft bigotry of low expectations. Thae’s charisma is real, and it gives him a heretofore untapped power to persuade the world that North Korea’s political system has become destructive of the lives, liberties, and happiness of its people — and will soon become destructive of ours, too — and that, consequently, it must be altered or abolished.

Americans often overuse the word “revolutionary.” Thae’s words are literally revolutionary. In recent interviews, he has unambiguously called for the North Korean people to rise and overthrow the state and predicted that North Korea won’t last five years. Here’s a preview of Thae’s Arirang interview:

Before Thae, no North Korean emigre spoke of his homeland with this same clarity of principle. Consequently, none of them represented a greater danger to the survival of the regime.

“We should collapse the Kim Jong Un regime by causing an internal revolt… I am 100 percent sure that we can do it,” Thae said. “The South Korean government and people should enlighten North Korean citizens to make them stand against Kim Jong Un’s reign of terror.”

Thae has been publicly repeating the argument since a closed-door news conference with South Korean reporters on December 27.

Thae made his debut on a South Korean local talk show broadcast by TV Chosun called “Moranbong Club,” which features North Korean defectors discussing North Korea-related topics.

The former diplomat argued the South should designate “the capital city of Pyongyang and soldiers at the truce line” as a target for the influx of information.

“Both richest and poorest groups of North Korea stay in Pyongyang and those who has power and don’t [co-exist],” Thae said. “There is the sharpest conflict and confrontation in Pyongyang.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

In South Korea, Thae is becoming a celebrity dissident. For the rest of the world, he threatens to emerge as a standard-bearer of resistance — a Dalai Lama, a Solzhenitsyn, an Armando Valladares. He validates what many of us have suspected all along that North Koreans were thinking and couldn’t say.

The diplomat’s decision to defect from a regime he had spent his whole life defending did not happen overnight.

Instead, his misgivings had been simmering for two decades, even as he went around Europe espousing the superiority of the North Korean system. They finally reached a boiling point when Thae Yong-ho realized that this regime, to which he had been so loyal, expected him to lie to his children.

“I’ve known that there was no future for North Korea for a long time,” Thae told The Washington Post in his first interview with the foreign media since his escape from the North Korean Embassy in London, where he served as deputy ambassador.

But last summer, he realized his hopes had been misplaced that supreme leader Kim Jong Un, who was educated in Switzerland and is only 33, would turn out to be a reformer. Thae fled, together with his wife and his two sons, now ages 19 and 26.

“Kim Jong Un is still young,” Thae said. “I was afraid that my even grandsons would have to live under this system. I decided that if I didn’t cut the chains of slavery off [my sons], they would complain, ‘Why didn’t you let us be free?’?” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]

Thae is also adding value to our national policy conversations, confronting the delusions of Americans, confirming that Kim Jong-un will not disarm, will escalate his provocations, and intends to pursue nuclear weapons that can strike our homeland. He is also confronting the delusions of many South Koreans, warning them that Kim Jong-un means to use that capacity to extinguish the freedom and independence of their homeland.

“North Korean people consider Barack Obama’s strategic patience a ‘tactical disregard.’ The U.S. sits by and watches the North conducting nuclear and missile test believing the country will collapse,” Thae said. “(Strategic patience) was ‘a quite favorable condition’ for the North.”

The North had assumed Hilary Clinton would win the election until last summer, he said, as the North considered Trump an “abnormal figure” who could “only represent some strata of the U.S. society” but “wouldn’t win an election.”

Despite Trump’s victory being an unexpected result for the North, Thae argued the North’s foreign diplomacy would maintain its hardline against Washington. Thae also predicted Pyongyang would continue to make “a series of provocations” in 2017. [NK News, Dagyum Ji]

One of those provocations, I predict, will be an attempt by Pyongyang’s agents to assassinate Thae. I hope he’ll be careful. I hope the National Intelligence Service will guard him and his family well.

It’s amusing to see how, to a certain species of North Korea watcher, North Koreans are only to be believed when there are minders about, listening for them to say the wrong thing and call them back to Pyongyang (to God-only-knows-what fate). Once a North Korean defects, anti-anti-North Korean and pro-North Korean critics invariably say that he or she has an “agenda.” It’s tempting to say that the truth is some middle position. After all, Thae unquestionably does have an agenda. But was that any less true before Thae defected, when it was his job to lie to us? I imagine that his agenda then would have been to preserve his life, and the lives of his wife and sons, and the small liberties he had won for them. The question isn’t whether Thae has an agenda. The question is which agenda you’re more inclined to accept. The question is whether Thae Yong-ho’s agenda now is his own, and whether you believe he has enough knowledge, independence, and veracity to be believed.

So, we return to the question this blog asked ten years ago: “Can they do it?” Given the current isolation, exhaustion, terror, and lack of organization of the North Korean people, only a military coup has any chance of success today. Could the people nonetheless acquire the means to resist, to tip the balance against the state, or force their rulers to decide that unless the system is altered, it will be abolished? I believe so. I also believe we can catalyze that possibility.  It won’t involve a single strategy, but a combination of strategies tailored to different demographics and systemic vulnerabilities. If they can succeed, they might do more than give life, liberty, and happiness to 23 million imprisoned Koreans. They might just spare 50 million other Koreans from the same fate.

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North Korean market traders are fighting The Man

Via Yonhap:

“It’s not that hard nowadays to see women stand up to despotic wardens and security agents while shaking their fingers at them at jangmadang,” the Radio Free Asia (RFA) said, citing a source in Pyongyang who recently visited China. “In such cases, nearby observers also join in and push the officials, something that was very rare to see just a few years ago.”

Now North Korean people are no longer giving in to officials unconditionally, the source said.

A Chinese businessman, who frequents the North’s Rason Special Economic Zone, also said: “Traffic wardens usually blow whistles to stop motor bikers whenever they see them on the road in order to extort money from them. As of late, more than half of the motorbikers, however, do not follow the order and just drive away.

“It was rare to see people daring to neglect wardens’ crackdowns not too long ago,” he said.

People have even begun to challenge security agents, using the term “human rights violations,” if they act unfairly and high-handedly, another source in the North’s South Hamkyong Province was quoted as saying.

“North Korea used to be a society that did not even know about the very term ‘human rights,'” the source added. [Yonhap]

North Koreans may be learning some of this from South Korean dramas, which often feature politics and protests as subplots. But even without foreign inspiration, nothing in recent years has motivated North Koreans’ political consciousness quite like the interference of petty despots with their hardscrabble livelihoods. For other examples, see this documentarythis incident, this massive brawl, these spontaneous protests, or any number of other incidents.

Indeed, the tendency for the trading classes to eschew politics until some (probably corrupt) thug in a uniform touches their market wares is universal — remember how the Arab Spring began? Slowly, the officials in the markets are becoming prisoners of the people. Now, imagine if after each such incident, North Koreans across the country could read about it on their smart phones the very same day.

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RFA: North Korean border guard under arrest after killing seven comrades

This blog has closely followed reports of indiscipline within the North Korean military, resistance against the state, strategies for political subversion, and the breakdown of border control. Last week, another report of a mass shooting incident by a North Korean border guard reinforced my belief that morale and discipline within the border guard force are declining.

A young North Korean man conscripted to guard a customs post on his country’s border with China in (sic) under arrest for shooting dead seven platoon members who had angered him with bullying treatment, RFA’s Korean Service has learned.

After the shootings at dawn on Jan. 7 at Hyesan, a city in North Korea’s northern Yanggang province, the young conscript was arrested and taken to Pyongyang, sources familiar with the shooting told RFA.  [….]

“The incident at the Hyesan customs office was caused by the frequent beatings suffered by the new conscripts at the hands of their superiors, and the one who committed the crime is a new conscript who graduated from high school last spring,” the source told RFA on Jan. 16. [Radio Free Asia]

In this case, it was hazing that caused the soldier to snap. In other cases, it was the lack of sufficient pay and rations that led soldiers to turn to crime or fratricide. Most of those reports point to endemic corruption as the cause of fratricides and defections. Officers and NCOs skim pay and rations and either keep them or sell them for a profit. I don’t attribute this to sanctions, as I see no direct evidence of that, but if sanctions were to disrupt the regime’s pay and rationing systems, I’d expect to see more incidents like this.

I have seen it suggested that this incident could not have happened because, according to Chinese media reports, North Korean soldiers along the border aren’t issued ammunition. But there are enough similar reports that we can reject that claim and instead categorize this report as plausible but unconfirmed. Let’s start with this incident from last July, in which a group of five armed North Korean soldiers crossed the border to rob Chinese civilians and got into a “gunfight” with Chinese police. Because a gunfight isn’t likely unless both sides have both weapons and ammunition, there is evidence that in at least some cases, North Korean soldiers along the northern border have both, and aren’t always using them as directed. More here.

In March of 2015, two armed North Korean border guards fled to China. At least one of them was captured. In that incident, the Dandong border guard station warned that the soldiers “are thought to be armed with guns and knives,” but the same report also said one of the soldiers was carrying “three blank magazines.”

Between September and December 2014, several desperate North Korean border guards, denied the income that they would otherwise have earned by taking bribes from smugglers, deserted across the border into China to rob and murder several civilians. A January 2015 Bloomberg report reports that in one of these incidents, “a North Korean soldier shot four residents of Nanping, a border village of about 300 in northeastern Jilin province. Around 20 villagers have been murdered in Nanping by North Koreans in recent years, a senior local official said in an interview.” So serious was the concern about the chaos along the border that some Chinese fled their border villages, Chinese authorities formed vigilante patrols and deployed troops to the border, and North Korea fired the general in charge. (See also this and this.)

In March 2013, a border guard in Musan County, North Hamgyeong province, shot and killed five company commanders and attempted (unsuccessfully) to desert. The soldier was reportedly disgruntled because he was underfed and was caught stealing food. In April 2012, Chinese and North Korean authorities launched 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. Going back to 2010, North Korean border guards shot dead three Chinese citizens after crossing the border.

There’s also substantial evidence that soldiers along the DMZ have weapons and ammunition, and that they also periodically shoot their officers, defect, or both. A case in point would be a 2012 incident in which a soldier on guard duty at the DMZ shot and killed two officers and crossed into South Korea. I’ve cataloged most recent reports of that kind at this post.

~   ~   ~

It is obvious why these incidents are horrible. It is less obvious why they may be hopeful for those who want to avoid greater horrors — another Korean War, the continuation of North Korea’s status quo, or the loss of South Korea’s freedom and independence. As long-time readers know, I’ve long believed that North Korea’s dictators want nuclear weapons to extort South Korea into submission. They aren’t interested in bargaining their nukes away for any price, with the exception of regime survival itself. Recently, centrists like Richard Armitage, Richard Haass, and Winston Lord have also come to believe that the overthrow of the North Korean system is probably the only way to disarm Kim Jong-un. But even as calls for regime change grow, the debate about how to execute such a policy is headed nowhere good.

The most obvious idea, that of a conventional attack, cautiously pushed in this post, is the worst and most dangerous plan for Götterdämmerung. Any plan for a sudden overthrow of Kim Jong-un will trigger a “use it or lose it” mentality within the North Korean leadership and is likely to get hundreds of thousands of people killed on both sides of the DMZ. Such a plan is likely to consolidate, rather than fracture, the cohesiveness of the North Korean command system and make officers and soldiers more (not less) likely to obey orders to fire on Seoul and Uijongbu. Our current defenses are inadequate to protect against North Korea’s large volume of artillery and rockets. A conventional invasion would not only enmesh us in an occupation of a country deeply indoctrinated with xenophobia and anti-Americanism, it might draw us into a direct conflict with China or result in a de-facto redrawing of the DMZ, turning part of Korea into a Chinese puppet state or “autonomous zone.” The idea of a full-on preemptive strike is a terrible, catastrophically bad idea that should only be considered in response to (or to preempt) an imminent all-out North Korean attack, which is unlikely absent a miscalculation.

Rather, any regime change strategy must take extraordinary care to avoid cornering Kim Jong-un until such time as he distrusts the loyalty and will of his military to obey orders to fire on South Korean cities. At every stage, North Korea’s leaders must believe that there are better and less risky options than this, including negotiations.

Until then, we should redouble our efforts to break down the cohesion of the North Korean command structure by appealing to elites, commanders, and enlisted soldiers alike. We should engage with and empower North Korea’s urban and rural poor to help them build a political underground and a new civil society, independent of their government. We should reassure North Korean elites that they have a future in a reunified Korea. We should offer clemency to commanders, including those who may be guilty of serious crimes, who choose to disobey unlawful orders at the critical moment. We should propagate a simple message of “rice, peace, and freedom” to soldiers and civilians alike. And yes, we should be willing to talk to the North Korean government and explain our position, provided we give no concessions on “engagement” or sanctions until North Korea makes verifiable progress (and also, provided that we never sideline our allies in Seoul and Tokyo). Progress toward what, and how much? Fortunately, people who thought about those questions wrote them into the law, giving the President a degree of flexibility to judge Pyongyang’s sincerity.

Meanwhile, sanctions can help catalyze that process by targeting the accounts and trading companies that pay North Korea’s military and security forces, to hasten the breakdown of its command systems, and to erode those forces’ morale and cohesion.

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Why North Korea will go back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism this year

As I write, Yonhap is reporting that North Korea may be fueling up two ICBMs for a test. Meanwhile, in Washington, Texas Republican Ted Poe has already shaped one part of the likely response to that. Poe isn’t one to back down from a fight — not with leukemia, and not with North Korea. He’s back at the helm of the House Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation, and Trade, where one of his first acts this year was to reintroduce a bill that would call for the State Department to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism. (The text still isn’t published at post time, but here’s a previous version.)

Specifically, the bill puts a series of North Korean acts before the State Department and asks it whether (1) North Korea did that thing, and (2) whether that thing meets the legal definition of terrorism. Because federal courts have already said “yes” to both of those questions for several of those things, there’s really only one right answer to the question of whether North Korea has, as section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act puts it, “repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”

For reasons I’ll explain in the rant that follows, North Korea’s exclusion from the list of state sponsors of terrorism has long irritated me. My guess is that I’ll soon have one less thing to rant about, because I’d assess the chances of North Korea going back on the list this year as above 90 percent — most likely, sometime between Groundhog Day and Memorial Day. I’m not revealing any insider knowledge, mind you, but you don’t need to be a weather man to know enough to bring your parka to Fargo in February. Kim Jong-un is going to do a lot of provocative things this year, and putting North Korea back on the list is not only an obvious response, it’s legally well-justified. Let’s start with the obvious.

1. North Korea sponsors terrorism.

Three years ago, I decided I’d had my fill of “experts” writing that North Korea doesn’t sponsor terrorism without having made any apparent inquiry into the evidence or the law, so I sacrificed my Christmas leave to write a hundred-page, peer-reviewed report laying that evidence out, analyzing the legal standards for listing a government as a state sponsor of terrorism, and applying North Korea’s recent conduct to that standard. I’m not going to repeat that entire report here, but I should probably at least give you a taste of it: in the last ten years alone, North Korea has armed terrorists, sent hit teams to murder defectors and dissidents, held the kidnapped citizens of other countries as prisoners, harbored hijackers, launched cyber attacks against newspapers and nuclear power plants, and threatened movie theaters across the United States with terrorist attacks if they showed a film parodying Kim Jong-un. For which, Barack Obama did approximately nothing.

Pause, for a moment, on that last point. Never in U.S. history has a foreign dictatorship so successfully chilled Americans’ freedom of expression in their own country, although Muslim supremacists also managed to get a public apology, an arrest, and de facto censorship of “blasphemous” speech that’s also at the very core of what the First Amendment protects. So, have you seen any good movies about North Korea lately? Neither have I, and it’s not for lack of suitable material. That should scare you, because as Obama himself said before doing approximately nothing:

“We cannot have a society in which some dictators someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States because if somebody is able to intimidate us out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing once they see a documentary that they don’t like or news reports that they don’t like.” [CNN]

That’s pretty typical Obama: a good, decent, and intelligent man articulating important principles eloquently and then failing completely in their defense and implementation.

Of course, no amount of evidence of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism will be enough to persuade people who oppose re-listing North Korea for policy reasons. Doug Bandow, for example, pretty obviously saw the report, and just as obviously didn’t read it. But then, Bandow’s policy views on North Korea — he favors immediate bilateral negotiations with Kim Jong-un, the lifting of sanctions, and a total U.S. withdrawal from South Korea — aren’t likely to have much support on Capitol Hill, or (from the looks of the confirmation hearings) in the new administration. As far as the strength of the evidence against North Korea goes, if it’s good enough for multiple federal district court judges and one federal court of appeals, it’s good enough for Doug Bandow, or would be if the evidence mattered to him at all.

2. North Korea never really renounced terrorism.

President George W. Bush announced the decision to remove North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on June 26, 2008, in exchange for its promises to dismantle its nuclear weapons programs (by law, the decision became effective on October 11th of that year). The results of that bargain speak for themselves, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

By law, there are two conditions to remove a state from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, both of them ridiculously easy to beat. First, the Secretary of State has to certify that the state has not “provided any support for international terrorism during the preceding 6-month period.” That’s six whole months of good behavior! Second, he has to certify that the government has “provided assurances that it will not support acts of international terrorism in the future.” Presumably, then, North Korea gave the State Department another one of its pro-forma statements that it opposes terrorism, a term it defines in an extraordinarily strange way.

What North Korea never actually did to get George W. Bush to rescind the designation, of course, was renounce terrorism in a minimally convincing way. It never sent the Japanese Red Army hijackers back to Japan to face trial. It never returned any foreign abductees, including the dozens of Japanese or South Koreans it kidnapped from the soil of their own home countries. It never accounted for its kidnapping of the late Rev. Kim Dong-shik, despite then-Senator Barack Obama’s written, signed promise that he’d oppose North Korea’s rescission from the list until it did. Which you can read for yourself right here.

Not only has North Korea never admitted, acknowledged, or apologized for its past acts of terrorism, within a year after being removed from the list, it was caught red-handed on at least three occasions shipping arms to Iran, probably for the use of Hezbollah, Hamas, and/or the Quds Force.

At this point, it’s tempting to get into a semantic discussion about what “sponsorship” and “terrorism” even mean, except that I’ve already done that in my long report. I’ve even suggested new definitions to clarify the law (which actually contains multiple definitions, all of them mutually inconsistent and imperfect for their own reasons).

Lawyers look to the text of the law first, and then to precedent to help them apply the law when it isn’t clear. As you’ll see in my report, some of North Korea’s conduct clearly fits the legal definitions and some of it doesn’t. When the law itself isn’t clear, we turn to examining what conduct the State Department used to justify the listing of other countries as sponsors of terrorism in previous annual reports. Merely building a nuclear weapons program probably doesn’t meet the legal standard, so logically, dismantling (or promising to dismantle) a nuclear program isn’t a renunciation of terrorism, either. In other words, removing North Korea from the list in 2008 wasn’t really about terrorism. That opened the list itself to charges that it was politicized.

3. North Korea should have gone back on the list when it broke its bargain.

Congress was never happy about President Bush’s rescission of North Korea’s listing in the first place. Legally, it can stop a rescission by passing a resolution within 45 days, but in 2008, the Bush administration announced the rescission just as Congress was leaving for summer recess, which as you’ve guessed by now, is longer than 45 days. Neat trick, right? Except that Congress never forgot that.

At the time President Bush announced that decision, both candidates for the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama and John McCain, said that if North Korea didn’t follow through on its promises to disarm, they would re-list North Korea (see page 51). Well, guess what? North Korea tested a nuke four months after Barack Obama took the oath of office, and Obama never did re-list North Korea.

In other words, North Korea was put on the list for things that clearly fit the legal definitions of terrorism (the 1983 Rangoon bombing and the 1987 Korean Air Lines bombing), but was taken off the list for promising not to do things that didn’t really fit those definitions. Admittedly, I’ll wince a little when the Trump administration re-lists North Korea for something that, in all probability, won’t exactly fit the definition, but at least I’ll take comfort from the fact that the evidence is otherwise overwhelming, and the error will be harmless. 

Of course, the usual suspects will rend their garments and wail: “No fair! A nuclear test isn’t terrorism!” To which I’ll say, “Where have you been hiding since 2008?” Every year since then, State Department reports have printed the flat-out lie that “North Korea is not known to have sponsored acts of terrorism since … 1987.” At least, I’d think they were lying if I really thought they even knew what the truth was.

4. Both Democrats and Republicans in Congress want North Korea back on the list.

Did I mean to suggest that senior officials in the U.S. Department of State might have been clueless about the evidence of North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism? Yes, I do. If you doubt me, just watch this hapless State Department official freeze like a deer staring into Judge Poe’s fog lamps at a hearing in 2015, as Poe waved one of those federal court decisions at her that found North Korea liable for sponsoring terrorism. It’s probably the single worst performance I’ve ever seen by a committee witness in all the years I’ve been watching Congress. Pretty clearly, Poe and Sherman weren’t appeased. They had plenty of follow-up questions, and introduced the first version of the current bill shortly thereafter.

Because this is a new Congress with plenty of time to pass legislation, and because North Korea is going to piss Congress off within the next few months — or hours — the new version of Poe’s bill will almost certainly pass on a voice vote. In recent years, calls to re-designate North Korea have become increasingly bipartisan. That’s been especially true since the 2014 Sony cyberterrorist attacks, when Bob Menendez, the New Jersey Democrat who then led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, added his name to the list of those calling for North Korea to go back on the list. Traditionally, Senate Democrats have been the State Department’s best procedural backstop to prevent bills from becoming law, but on North Korea, today’s Senate Democrats are often just as hawkish as the Republicans. Just watch them in action. They aren’t about to sacrifice themselves for Kim Jong-un.

5. North Korea is about to piss Donald Trump off.

You don’t even have to read the headlines to know this. North Korea always provokes new U.S. or South Korean leaders as they’re forming their governments and policies. Whether their extortionate strategy works is less important as whether North Korea thinks it does. They provoked to Barack Obama, Lee Myung-bak, and Park Geun-hye, and all signs are pointing to them doing it to Trump, too. As Evans Revere paraphrases what they’re thinking in Pyongyang today, “We are willing to risk nuclear war to achieve our goals, are you?”

Personally, I think they’re about to make a grave miscalculation. I don’t give free advice people I despise, but if I’m right about Pyongyang right now, Kim Jong-un will act as much out of impulse as design, and none of the people in Pyongyang who are reading this will dare tell him not to. But if you are reading this from Pyongyang, feel free to try your luck.

6. It’s easy.

There’s no act of Congress required for this. All the Secretary of State would have to do is sign a one-page letter invoking section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act. If a pissed-off POTUS is looking for something nasty to do to Kim Jong-un the same day he has the red mist, this is the easiest thing to pull off the shelf.

(A diabolical afterthought: Donald Trump could arguably re-list North Korea in less than 140 characters: “North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.” You’re done, and you still have room for the “#MAGA” hashtag! Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act controls the listing “process” and criteria … such as they are. The law doesn’t require any particular format or an act of Congress, and unlike the rescission process, there are no delays built in. Yeah, yeah, I know 6(j) says the Secretary of State makes that determination. Wanna argue that POTUS lacks the authority the Secretary of State has? If a memo is good enough, why isn’t a tweet? If a tweet is good enough, why not a retweet? If you find that process to be just a bit too … spontaneous, well, maybe now I can convince you (as I argued in my report) that Congress should have a greater say in it. Meanwhile, if you think you can bait the Commander in Chief into retweeting North Korea back onto the list, I’ll hold your beer while you do it. Also, I’ll buy your next one.)

7. There’s no diplomatic reason not to.

If you’ve watched any of the confirmation hearings for Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, CIA, of U.N. Ambassador, these people don’t sound like they have Joel Wit’s number in their Rolodexes, and they don’t sound terribly interested in Agreed Framework 3.0. Ironically, that makes an agreement more likely, not less. I don’t know if that’s reason for woe or optimism until I see how hard Trump is willing to push Kim, how long we’re willing and how much we’re able to build up our leverage, and what deal we might eventually make. Whatever the answer to those questions, this isn’t the year for it, and neither is next year.

8. It will close some sanctions gaps.

For years, the State Department has told reporters that re-listing North Korea would be “symbolic,” and for years, reporters — the same reporters who uncritically repeated the twaddle about North Korea being under heavy sanctions — printed that without questioning it. A year ago, when our North Korea sanctions were much weaker than that are now, a re-listing of North Korea would have made a bigger difference than it would make now that Congress has passed a law strengthening sanctions.

But that doesn’t mean that a re-listing wouldn’t close some important gaps. First, it would trigger 31 C.F.R. Part 596, meaning that banks would have to apply for a Treasury Department license to process dollar transactions on North Korea’s behalf. That would be extremely powerful by itself. Just ask BNP Paribas, which paid a multi-billion-dollar settlement for violating similar requirements on behalf of Iran, Cuba, and other countries subject to that sort of licensing requirement. Second, it would trigger SEC rules requiring corporations to disclose their investments in North Korea in public filings. That, in turn, could trigger a North Korea divestment movement by NGOs (I know this sounds contradictory, but I expect to be surprised how many companies invest in North Korea and issue securities in the U.S.) Third, it would require U.S. diplomats to oppose benefits (like loans) for North Korea from international financial institutions. Fourth, it would mean that U.S. victims of North Korean terrorism could sue North Korea for its acts of terrorism. None of those sanctions are in effect now, and each would do significant financial damage to North Korea.

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Why talk of human rights unnerves North Korean diplomats so much, and why that matters

The Wall Street Journal’s Jonathan Cheng has taken note of the rise in defections by members of the North Korean elite. Over the last year, this blog closely followed that trend, including the unprecedented group defections of workers in Malta, China, and Russia; soldiers guarding the Yalu River border; high-ranking intelligence officers; and even diplomats. Last week, a Chinese media report also claimed that “approximately 10 North Korean IT technicians and hackers went missing around 9 p.m. Wednesday in Changchun in the northeastern Chinese province of Jilin.” It is not just the rank and status of these defectors that matters so much, but also what group defections tell us about the potential for conspiratorial and collective action against the world’s most repressive state.

So far, Thae Yong-ho is the only North Korean diplomat to have come out publicly, but Thae now says there are others.

“A significant number of diplomats came to South Korea,” Thae Yong-ho told a conference hosted by the conservative Bareun Party which will be formally launched this month. “Even now, there are a number of (North Koreans) waiting to head to the South.”

“There will be an increase in the number of elite-class defectors seeking a better life,” he added. “I am the only high-ranking official whose identity has been revealed to the public. South Korean media do not know but North Korean diplomats are all aware of it.” [Yonhap]

That aligns with this NK News report, citing South Korean press reports (which, in turn, cite “unnamed local officials”) that at least seven North Korean diplomats posted in Bulgaria, Russia, and East Asia defected last year. If true, that would be remarkable; it could also be profoundly consequential. For obvious reasons, Thae can’t confirm who those other defectors are, but some tantalizing, still-unverified reports last year claimed that top-level Bureau 39 slush fund managers defected from China, Europe, and Russia. Again, if those reports are true, these men could expose the funding network that pays the soldiers, guards, civil servants, and security forces that sustain Kim Jong-un’s misrule. They could also cause nervous bankers across China, Russia, and Europe to flip and report suspicious North Korean transactions to the Treasury Department, for fear of being outed by defectors and penalized for sanctions violations or money laundering.

Thae hasn’t said as much about his own knowledge of regime finances, but he does say that North Korea’s insurance fraud scam continued until the EU’s recent blocking of the Korea National Insurance Corporation, despite its exposure years ago by Kim Kwang-jin. The greater impact of Thae’s defection, however, will be the damage it does to North Korea’s political cohesion. We will not know its full extent until his calls for revolution reach his homeland. Nor will we know its full effect on the new Trump administration until Thae speaks directly to American policymakers in his excellent English. 

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What causes the disgruntlement of a scion of one of North Korea’s most privileged bloodlines and a trusted member of His Porcine Majesty’s foreign service? Thae Yong-ho’s path toward dissent and defection sounds like another case of Marxist criticism being particularly (and ironically) applicable to what I’ll call North Korean crisis theory; that is, his faith was undone by the system’s internal contradictions. He wanted a better life for himself and his children than the system could offer. He wanted Kim Jong-un to be a reformer. And for all the propaganda that North Koreans have nothing to envy, Thae knew better. He could not defend the system against the evidence of its inhumanity.

Thae also emphasized the importance of international pressure on North Korea’s human rights issue based on his experience as a former diplomat. According to him, North Korean diplomats can remain defiant and proud on the issue of nuclear development, but when it comes to the issue of human rights, they often lose their nerve.

“North Korean diplomats can talk proudly about nuclear development wherever they go, because although it seems that the world is united against North Korea, many countries are actually keeping their eye on how the North will develop itself as a nuclear power. Some countries are interested in following North Korea’s path to becoming a nuclear power themselves. Therefore, North Korean diplomats retain their dignity despite the criticisms of international society,” Thae explained.

“However, there is not a single country that approves of North Korea’s human rights violations. The most frequent question I received was, ‘Do you think North Korea is an egalitarian society?’ North Korea will inevitably be put on the defensive in a debate over the human rights issue,” Thae added.

Thae particularly emphasized the importance of taking Kim Jong Un to the ICC (International Criminal Court), adding that North Korean diplomats are doing everything in their power to prevent it.

“It is not easy for North Koreans to understand the concepts of the ICC or human rights. But they will be greatly interested if they hear that Kim Jong Un will be tried at the international court. It will be a direct sign that Kim Jong Un is a criminal and his regime has no future,” Thae added. [Daily NK]

Look at some of the videos of Thae defending the North Korean system, knowing now that he probably didn’t believe half of it. He did it better than Jang Il-hun did it at the Council on Foreign Relations a little more than two years ago. (In one particularly absurd moment, Jang cited North Korea’s new ski resort as evidence that human rights conditions had improved. Human Rights Watch, not surprisingly, has a different view). Having to defend the indefensible to foreign audiences eventually takes a toll.

Exposed to the outside world and information, North Korean diplomats often face a dilemma of knowing the fabrication of Pyongyang and having to still speak for the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and human rights records.

“North Korea’s elite class is living an opportunistic life and believes that they can continue to live like that (with the privileges they enjoy). During the day, they extol the virtues of Kim Jong-un, but at night they hide themselves under a blanket to watch (South Korean) dramas,” the 55-year-old career diplomat said.

“I, myself, had to cry hooray for Kim Jong-un … but I had a very difficult time defending the North Korean state during meetings with people in Britain in which most people denounced the North’s system and challenged my vindication of it,” according to him.

The North Korean government is well aware of such a dilemma and strains to keep outside news from its people, even from the country’s top echelons, he noted.

“Even a vice head of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party of Korea cannot enter a (foreign ministry) room where CNN is being played although a common member of the foreign ministry is given access to it,” Thae said. “The OGD vice head may have complete sway over me, but he is only allowed government-filtered information, and nothing else.”

Diplomats also keep their mouth shut primarily out of desperation to protect themselves and their families who can fall victim to the regime’s merciless dealings with those who let out banned information.

“North Korean society is sustainable only on the condition that the inflow of outside information is shut out. The day such information makes inroads, North Korea would fall apart,” he said. [Yonhap]

Other North Korean diplomats are finding their hosts increasingly critical of Kim Jong-un by name. 

North Korean embassies are in a pinch as their attempts to defend Pyongyang’s human rights record overseas is backfiring and the international community is now criticizing their leader, Kim Jong-un, by name.

Fed up with North Korea human rights issues, European countries are making especially critical remarks of Kim Jong-un, according to a government source Wednesday.

As North Korea continues to defend its human rights situation, which is condemned by the United Nations, Kim Jong-un has subsequently been called “a kid who knows nothing” and worse.

Thus, Pyongyang, in the midst of harsh economic sanctions, faces further isolation.

“These remarks are coming in foreign ministers’ meeting, so high-level officials and North Korean embassies are all actively trying to respond to this,” the official continued. “While this hasn’t been reported in media, as such news is being spread in diplomatic circles, North Korean overseas embassies are actively working to respond to this.”

Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto referred to the North Korean leader as a “lunatic communist dictator,” which prompted Pyongyang’s embassy in Austria to demand an explanation, VOA reported last week. But this backfired, and Hungary reportedly sent an official letter stating that the foreign minister’s words are his views and beliefs.

Szijjarto last month visited Seoul and met with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se on Dec. 16. The Hungarian foreign minister was said to have recounted his childhood under the brutalities of a communist dictatorship. [Joongang Ilbo]

Fear also takes a toll on the diplomats. The regime, concerned that diplomatic isolation will deny it access to foreign markets, finance, and legitimacy, has ordered them to “contain the situation” and has threatened to punish those who fail to do so. 

The diplomatic source here said, “They are ordered to take all measures and invest whatever resources needed to block such critical talk of Kim Jong-un from becoming public opinion. If they do not take care of this issue properly, it is said the diplomats of the respective embassies will be summoned home and punished.”

Pyongyang has especially been sensitive on the issue since Washington for the first time imposed sanctions on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un over human rights abuses in July. [Joongang Ilbo]

As I said at the time, symbols are powerful things, especially to North Korea.

It is often said that North Koreans are more interested in foreign media that entertains than openly subverts (which is my excuse to plug Baek Jieun’s book, “North Korea’s Hidden Revolution”). To be sure, this is true of most human beings anywhere. Neither Barack Obama nor Donald Trump has as many Twitter followers as Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, or Taylor Swift. But once Thae Yong-ho became receptive to political criticism, openness became active interest, and active interest became a compulsion. 

But he also said that North Korean diplomats overseas are, nevertheless, eager to hear news on North Korea as reported by foreign media.

“I was checking reports by South Korean media on North Korea and Yonhap News agency’s section for ‘North Korea’ every day on my smartphone. I read every news story related to defectors who settled in South Korea. I shed tears reading their stories, and [somehow] garnered the courage to defect as a result of them,” Thae said.

“All North Korean officials and their family members overseas are checking South Korean news every day. By tomorrow, every North Korean diplomat abroad will be aware of what I have said right now.” [Daily NK]

Which is my excuse to (again) plug Commander Skip Vincenzo’s report on information strategies to sway the North Korean elites away from war, and toward peace and reunification.

It is always a minority that takes an active (rather than a passive) interest in political criticism. That tendency must be especially pronounced in a place where thoughtcrime means a quick and painful death for you, and a slow and painful death for the people you love. But this minority produces a nation’s civil servants, its generals, its corrupt officials, and eventually, its dissidents and rebels. When it arrives at such a political consciousness, this minority exerts a disproportionate influence.

“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap; see also]

Thae is uniquely positioned to help other doublethinkers in Pyongyang — and in its embassies abroad — make the same journey he made. No wonder the regime is making him its Emmanuel Goldstein; its survival may depend on that. For Thae, the end of his journey from oligarch to dissident came when he gathered his sons and said, “I will cut off your slave chains as your father from this moment.” 

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North Korean ship that sank last week may have been used for arms smuggling

A North Korean freighter with the not-entirely-Korean-sounding name of Chong Gen went to the bottom of the Tsushima Strait last week with nearly 5,720 tonnes* of rice aboard. The crew sent a distress signal and took to their lifeboats in time for the Japanese Coast Guard to rescue the entire crew of 26. All are reported safe.

Lucky them. Most North Korean ships that have arrived in Japan recently have carried only the dead.

Now, I’m no maritime expert, but 26 sounds like a very large crew. No doubt, the Japanese authorities, who are questioning the crew members, are wondering the same thing. So far, however, the Japanese are saying they don’t see anything out of the ordinary. This does not end our inquiry, however.

[Japan Coast Guard, via CNN]

Nampo is the port that serves Pyongyang, whereas Wonsan is a city for the poor, who will feel the loss of that rice most acutely.

A search of OFAC’s database for the ship’s IMO number (8862155) indicates that it isn’t designated by the Treasury Department, but this book implicates the Chong Gen in delivering multiple-launch artillery rocket systems to the port of Thilawa, Burma in 2010, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo that was already enacted in two separate resolutions (see also). Just over one year ago, Treasury designated (and froze the assets of) North Korea’s Ambassador to Burma under Executive Order 13687.

The investigative journalist (and legend) Bertil Lintner has written that the Chong Gen and other North Korean ships had previously been used to deliver weapons to Burma, returning with rice. None of the reports on the Chong Gen‘s sinking indicates that the ship had visited Burma in the weeks before its final voyage, but maybe one of you who has access to shipping databases can enlighten us.

For some interesting insights into the life of a North Korean merchant sailor, see this post by HRNK Insider.

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* Corrected, thank you.

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Treasury designates N. Korea’s Himmler & “Angel of Death,” & Kim Jong-un’s sister

On Wednesday, the Treasury Department designated seven North Korean officials under Executive Order 13687, and two ministries under Executive Order 13722 (the authority has legal implications, which I’ll touch on later in this post). Along with the designations, Treasury and State issued, respectively, a statement and a report explaining the designations.

“The North Korean regime not only engages in severe human rights abuses, but it also implements rigid censorship policies and conceals its inhumane and oppressive behavior,” said John E. Smith, Acting OFAC Director.  “Today’s action exposes individuals supporting the North Korean regime and underscores the U.S. Government’s commitment to promoting accountability for serious human rights abuses and censorship in North Korea.”

Today’s designations were issued pursuant to E.O. 13687, which targets, among others, officials of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea.  As a result of today’s actions, any property or interest in property of those designated by OFAC within U.S. jurisdiction is frozen.  Additionally, transactions by U.S. persons involving the designated persons are generally prohibited.  The identifications of two entities as blocked were issued pursuant to E.O. 13722, which, among others, blocks the property and interests in property of the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea, including those two entities. [Treasury Dep’t]

The Hill and Yonhap both reported on the designations. The individuals designated included Kim Won-hong, Kim Il-nam, Kim Yo-jong, Choe Hwi, Min Byong-chol, Jo Yong-won, and Kang P’il-hun.

  • Kim Yo-jong is Kim Jong-un’s younger sister and Vice Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, which Treasury calls “North Korea’s primary agency responsible for both newspaper and broadcast censorship, among other things.” The PAD is also the business partner of the Associated Press. Although officials in both Seoul and Washington have played up Kim Yo-jong’s influence, I tend to doubt that a regime as patriarchal as this one has really entrusted functions as vital as propaganda and censorship to a 26-year-old woman.
  • Choe Hwi, also designated today, is another Vice Director of the PAD. But, acknowledging that no analogy is perfect, the real Goebbels of North Korea is probably Kim Ki-nam, who has many decades of experience in the field, and who was designated by Treasury earlier this year, also under EO 13687.
  • If Kim Ki-nam is North Korea’s Goebbels, its Himmler is Kim Won-hong, the Minister of State Security. The MSS (formerly the State Security Department until it was renamed recently) is responsible for the Gestapo that enforces internal security, and the Totenkopfverbände that guard its political prison camps.
  • Kang P’il-hun is Director of the General Political Bureau of the Ministry of People’s Security. The MPS is North Korea’s regular police force, but it is also much more. It runs local interrogation centers all over North Korea, refers some of those it arrests to the prison camp system, and previously ran (and perhaps currently runs) a camp of its own, the closed-and-recently-reopened Camp 18.
  • Kim Il-Nam is responsible for the Yodok political prison camp, or Camp 15, in South Hamgyeong Province, best known through the gulag memoir of Kang Chol-hwan, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang.”
  • Min Byong-chol is known locally as the “angel of death” for “his record of political inspections and purges.” Think of him as an internal enforcer, like Heinrich Müller, Nikolai Yezhov, or Lavrentiy Beria. Officially, his his title is Director of the Inspection Division of the Organization and Guidance Department.
  • Jo Yong-won is the Vice Director of the Organization and Guidance Department of the ruling Worker’s Party. The OGD has been firmly in charge in Pyongyang at least since the purge of Jang Song-taek in late 2013 — longer according to some experts. If anything, State and Treasury may be understating Jo’s importance. Jo is often photographed with Kim Jong-un during his “looking at things” tours, which is one of the indicators of an official’s importance.

Special thanks to a good friend of OFK, who will remain nameless, for providing additional background for this post.

Now, the weird part. Note how the seven individuals designated are noted as “DPRK2,” meaning Executive Order 13687. That’s a status-based EO that allows for the designation of any agent of the North Korean government or Workers’ Party. Treasury and State offer extensive, conduct-based justifications for the designations. There are certainly good public advocacy reasons for doing that, but legally, it would have been enough to say they were ruling party officials.

On the other hand, Treasury designated North Korea’s State Planning Commission and Ministry of Labor as “DPRK3,” meaning EO 13722, which partially implements the NKSPEA and is conduct-based (in this case, for human rights violations). Yet Treasury’s statement explaining the designations under a conduct-based EO only says it’s because they’re “agencies, instrumentalities, or controlled entities of the Government of North Korea,” which happens to be language ripped straight from EO 13687. Admittedly, the statement also says that the ministries have roles in allocating labor to the mining sector, which is subject to sectoral sanctions under EO 13722.

Anthony “the Beard of Knowledge” Ruggiero also finds the choice of EOs odd, and wonders if this is an effort to avoid the conditions for suspending and lifting sanctions in the NKSPEA. Overall, however, the choices of targets are good ones (if belated). One important objective of sanctions should be to de-fund and break down the system of control, and shift North Korea’s internal balance of power. Here’s what it would look like in practice if that half of the strategy actually works. Here’s how the other half would work.

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Rex Tillerson on North Korea

I’ve been letting confirmation hearings play in the background at the office this week, and I was able to catch enough of Rex Tillerson’s hearing to listen up at key moments. You can watch the whole thing here if you have time; it’s likely that North Korea also came up during other moments that I didn’t catch. Of course, I was keen to hear Tillerson’s views about North Korea. I was also keen to hear (indirectly) the views of the transition team members who had prepared him for his hearing. In his written testimony, Tillerson strongly criticized China for being unhelpful on North Korea.

And we must hold those who are not our friends accountable to the agreements they make. Our failure to do this over recent decades has diminished our standing and encouraged bad actors around the world to break their word. We cannot afford to ignore violations of international accords, as we have done with Iran. We cannot continue to accept empty promises like the ones China has made to pressure North Korea to reform, only to shy away from enforcement. Looking the other way when trust is broken only encourages more bad behavior. And it must end. [….]

We should also acknowledge the realities about China. China’s island building in the South China Sea is an illegal taking of disputed areas without regard for international norms. China’s economic and trade practices have not always followed its commitments to global agreements. It steals our intellectual property, and is aggressive and expansionist in the digital realm. It has not been a reliable partner in using its full influence to curb North Korea. China has proven a willingness to act with abandon in pursuit of its own goals, which at times has put it in conflict with America’s interests. We have to deal with what we see, not with what we hope.

But we need to see the positive dimensions in our relationship with China as well. The economic well-being of our two nations is deeply intertwined. China has been a valuable ally in curtailing elements of radical Islam. We should not let disagreements over other issues exclude areas for productive partnership. [Written Testimony]

Tillerson made similar verbal statements early on in the hearing.

More press reports on those comments here and here.

Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado got his turn to ask questions at 2:31:50 (sorry, no embed link). Gardner used his time efficiently, methodically pinning Tillerson down on a series of policy points: full enforcement of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, exerting more pressure on China and North Korea, the use of secondary sanctions against China, and working closely with Japan and South Korea. Gardner returned at 6:21 to raise the issue of human rights and yesterday’s designation of Kim Yo-jong, announced just minutes before, though Tillerson himself didn’t expand on that. (I’ll discuss those designations in a future post, hopefully tonight.)

Tillerson’s hearing added more pixels to our image of the Trump administration’s North Korea policy, and the policy that is taking form is a conventionally conservative one. Compare Tillerson’s comments with those of Michael Flynn during a recent visit to Seoul, where Flynn also re-committed to the alliance and to stepping up the enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang. Tillerson is clearly smart and well-schooled in foreign affairs. When appropriate, he was willing to disagree with some of the bombastic statements of the President-Elect as a candidate. He seemed steady, independent, and well-qualified. We could do much worse. Time will tell whether he’ll be confirmed and how he performs.

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Two must-reads, via David Straub & Evans Revere

I sacrificed my blogging time for a greater cause today, but instead will direct you to the sober and terrifying analyses of two of my favorite left-of-center North Korea watchers, David Straub and Evans Revere. Both will give you a good idea of exactly where Kim Jong-un thinks his nuclear program is leading, and it doesn’t involve bargaining it away. Similar to this and this in some regards, in case you missed those posts.

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WaPo: Trump’s Asia team leans toward sanctioning N. Korea’s Chinese enablers

For now, this is mostly leaks and whispers in a Josh Rogin column, but it’s encouraging.

Behind the scenes, however, the Trump transition is preparing its own pivot to Asia. As the team that will implement that policy takes shape, what’s emerging is an approach that harkens back to past Republican administrations — but also seeks to actualize the Obama administration’s ambition of enhancing the U.S. presence in the region. Transition officials say the Trump administration will take a hawkish view of China, focus on bolstering regional alliances, have a renewed interest in Taiwan, be skeptical of engagement with North Korea and bolster the U.S. Navy’s fleet presence in the Pacific. [….]

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are advancing quickly, and Trump has pledged to stop them. His team is considering secondary sanctions that would apply to companies that aid Kim Jong Un’s regime, which would create another point of tension with China. The details of several of the policies are not yet fleshed out. [Josh Rogin, WaPo]

Victor Cha, who cited this humble blog in congressional testimony recently to support the point that our North Korea sanctions are far weaker than frequently described, is among those under consideration for a senior post in the team. An op-ed Cha co-wrote with Robert Gallucci in the New York Times (a key passage of which is archived here, if you’re not a subscriber) also calls for increasing secondary financial sanctions against North Korea and emphasizing its crimes against humanity by citing the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report. Obviously, I won’t argue with the soundness of those ideas, and I’d like to see both of them become parts of our North Korea policy.

Of course, I’ve read rumors for years that various administrations have been considering those strategies; I’ve yet to see any of them actually pursue them. And even today, I seldom disagree with what Chris Hill* writes in his op-eds, but the policy he executed was so disastrous that the distrust he created still lingers — between the U.S. and Japan, between Congress and the State Department, and between the State Department and the Treasury Department. You can even lay some of the blame for the failure of U.N. sanctions on Hill. (* Update: I have no information that Hill is under consideration for any policy post, I’m only using him as an example.)

Admittedly, policy is easier to blog about in the abstract than it is to execute in a complex world of conflicting and shifting interests. And arguably, the decision to accept the cost of some broken china to disarm North Korea is the easy one. The hard questions are about how we would use the pressure sanctions are meant to create. What strategy are sanctions meant to serve? How precisely can we target sanctions to serve that strategy and mitigate harm to the North Korean people? Are we willing to keep pursuing sanctions if the regime starts to break apart, or if South Korea veers left? When will our leverage be sufficient to restart talks, and how will we know when that time comes? Exactly what sanctions relief would we be willing to grant for what concessions? Would we grant limited sanctions relief before achieving all of our objectives and without throwing away our leverage, and how can we do that? I’ve had some thoughts on those questions.

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Is this what a North Korean malaise speech looks like?

Readers know that I’ve been critical of those who cherry-pick words out of North Korean dictators’ rambling New Year speeches to find evidence to support their arguments. Having made the sacrifice of actually reading this one (full text below the jump), I would not characterize it as profoundly different from the same old crap North Korean dictators have told their subjects year after year. No, it was not quite a North Korean “malaise speech,” but it was filled with clear (if tacit) acknowledgments that the byungjin policy (nukes plus economic development) hasn’t delivered the “white rice and meat soup” Kim Jong-un promised North Koreans five years ago. 

So, on guard against overstating the significance of what follows, this language shows more contrition and introspection than I’m accustomed to from North Korean tyrants.

My desires were burning all the time, but I spent the past year feeling anxious and remorseful for the lack of my ability. I am hardening my resolve to seek more tasks for the sake of the people this year and make redoubled, devoted efforts to this end.

Previously, all the people used to sing the song We Are the Happiest in the World, feeling optimistic about the future with confidence in the great Comrades Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. I will work with devotion to ensure that the past era does not remain as a moment in history but is re-presented in the present era. On this first morning of the new year I swear to become a true servant loyal to our people who faithfully supports them with a pure conscience.

Alternative translation here, via NK News. Of course, Kim Jong-un and his father have struck notes of contrition in these speeches before. The theme of a self-sacrificing paternal leader deeply concerned for the welfare of his subjects is an old one in North Korean propaganda. Even so, this seems even more contrite than usual. I haven’t the time or the stomach to do a line-by-line linguistic comparison, but I don’t recall His Porcine Majesty having used — or closed with — such strong language before. Clearly, he knows that things should have been better by now. He knows that his people are unhappy with their standard of living, and perhaps more. Whoever wrote the text saw a need for him to acknowledge the misery of his people, lest he seem detached or callous about it.

Contrast Kim’s aspirational claims about prosperity and economic development with his claims of “consolidating the defence capability of Juche Korea” and that North Korea had “achieved the status of a nuclear power, a military giant, in the East which no enemy, however formidable, would dare to provoke.” There’s nothing aspirational about that. Still, it can’t be lost on his people that he’d traded away their prosperity for his nukes, so he tried to project blame:

Even though the enemy grew more blatant in their obstructive schemes and severe difficulties cropped up one after another, all the service personnel and people drew themselves closer together around the Party and waged a vigorous struggle in the revolutionary spirit of self-reliance and fortitude. This was how they achieved the world-startling, miraculous successes under such trying circumstances. 

Last year the imperialist reactionary forces’ moves for political and military pressure and sanctions against our country reached an extreme. But they failed to break the faith of our service personnel and people in victory, and could not check the vigorous revolutionary advance of Juche Korea.

We should resolutely thwart the enemy’s sinister and pernicious schemes to check the warm and pure-hearted aspiration of our people who follow the Party single-heartedly and to alienate the Party from them.

Other statements in the speech acknowledged social and political problems that belied the many claims of single-hearted unity.

We should thoroughly apply the people-first doctrine, the crystallization of the Juche-oriented view on the people, philosophy of the people, in Party work and all the spheres of state and social life, and wage an intensive struggle to root out abuses of power, bureaucratism and corruption that spoil the flower garden of single-hearted unity.

They should resolutely break with defeatism, self-preservation, formalism and expediency, and devote their heart and soul to the struggle for carrying out the Party’s plans and intentions.

There may be various reasons why Kim Jong-un’s birthday celebrations were relatively muted this year. He may be sensitive about his age, but I suspect that the idolization of Kim would be more advanced by now if the regime believed that he was deeply and genuinely popular.

Reportedly out of concern for adverse publicity, the regime has banned public executions (it’s killing people privately instead). Kim Jong-un has even reportedly told his security forces to stop searching homes without warrants(!) due to “escalating disgruntlement and official complaints to the district office over the the tyrannical behavior of law enforcement officers.” That is the kind of order that seems unlikely to stick in practice, but if it’s true, it would be evidence of discontent with security crackdowns like those that preceded last year’s party Congress. The Daily NK also points to other, more recent acts of protest. See also this post.

More than 1,400 North Koreans defected from North to South in 2016, a rise of 11 percent. This is the first increase since Kim Jong-un’s succession, but that is not necessarily useful evidence for measuring popular morale. More likely, it indicates that an initially successful crackdown on border control is flagging due to low morale and indiscipline within the border guard force (as with the rest of the military) and due to the destruction of border posts and fences, and the border guards themselves, by last year’s floods.

What does seem significant for morale, however, is that higher-ranking North Koreans and those of higher “songbun” (political loyalty classification) are defecting in higher numbers, for reasons that are more political than material. Some reports attribute this to sanctions, which may be partially true — North Korean elites posted overseas have rigid quotas for sending cash back to Pyongyang. In some cases, those who can’t meet those quotas due to sanctions may be tempted to defect rather than return home. That North Korean workers in Russia report an increase in wage theft may mean that they’re being squeezed to make up for revenue lost elsewhere (which in turn leads to more group defections like this one — the “death spiral” I’ve spoken of before). That many of the elites are afraid of being purged is another likely factor. 

Overall, however, the prospect of a long, bleak future under Kim Jong-un and the fading of any hopes that he would be a reformer may well be the greatest cause of North Korea’s malaise. I’ll give Thae Yong-ho the last word:

“As the Kim Jong-un regime took power, I had a slight hope that he would make a rational, reasonable regime because he must be well aware of how the world runs after he studied overseas for a long time,” Thae said. But Kim turned out even more merciless than his father and late leader Kim Jong-il, he said, citing the shocking public execution of the leader’s once-powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek in 2013 as one of the moments of awakening that eventually solidified his decision to defect. [Yonhap]

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Update: More here.

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Yun Byung-se, The Indispensable Man

Park Geun-hye, the cautious triangulatrix who belatedly became South Korea’s most subversive (to North Korea) president for two decades, is all but gone, and almost everyone in South Korea is applauding. None, however, have applauded with as much enthusiasm as those on South Korea’s far left, who fill a spectrum between anti-anti-North Korean and violently pro-North KoreanThe left now senses that it has an advantage headed into next year’s presidential campaign and hopes to end Seoul’s campaign of diplomatic and financial isolation of its renegade provinces in the North, and its encouragement of embarrassing and damaging defections by senior regime officials like Thae Yong-ho. But if the left hoped that the end of Park’s presidency would also mean the end of that campaign, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se is dashing those hopes. These examples, which I’ve collected over the last three months, show Yun carrying right on where Park left off.

  • 9/27: In Seoul, Park asks the President of the Netherlands “to play an ‘active role’ in pressuring North Korea to end its nuclear ambitions and provocations through sanctions and diplomacy.”
  • 9/29: North Korea opens a new embassy in Belarus, but without an accredited ambassador.
  • 9/30: South Korea’s Vice Unification Minister visits Germany, in part “to discuss strategies for global coordination against North Korea’s nuclear program.”
  • 10/4: Yonhap reports that Seoul has asked the Bulgarian government to curtail North Korea’s abuse of the Vienna Convention, “generating hard currency through illicit real-estate dealings.” (UNSCR 2321 has since emphasized that diplomatic missions may not be used for commercial purposes.)
  • 10/6: Yun suggests that U.N. member states should downgrade or cut diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. (The State Department has also called on states to “downgrade or sever” diplomatic relations with the North.)
  • 10/12: Costa Rica’s President visits President Park in Seoul and promises to issue a decree implementing UNSCR 2270.
  • 11/1: Under international pressure, Indonesia cancels a visit by North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong
  • 11/2: Sudan’s Foreign Minister visits Seoul, meets with Yun, and says it has cut all military ties with North Korea.
  • 12/1: Yun says South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. will announce their own national sanctions, foreshadowing the latest round of Treasury Department designations.
  • 12/3: Immediately after the approval of UNSCR 2321 by the Security Council, Yun urges China to implement the new resolution faithfully. He also urged the incoming Trump administration  to “take over and implement the strong sanctions.”
  • 12/6: Yun says he’s scheduled to hold high-level talks with his counterparts from the U.S., China, and Russia on implementation of the sanctions, and adds, “The unprecedentedly powerful UNSC resolution, combined with individual sanctions by Seoul, Washington and Tokyo, will corner North Korea into a situation that it cannot circumvent.”
  • 12/16: Visiting Yun in Seoul, Hungary’s Foreign Minister promises to support sanctions against North Korea.

South Korea is not only vowing to continue its campaign, it is now starting to claim that it’s putting the North under severe financial and diplomatic strain. You can find the most detailed case for that claim here. It’s worth reading in full, but take it with a grain of salt.

On the optimistic side of the ledger, there is an alleged internal North Korean document exhorting diplomats to strengthen ties to “non-aligned” states, traditionally some of its best trading partners and arms clients. This interview (in Korean) with Thae Yong-ho adds recent direct evidence that sanctions have caused financial problems for the North Korean embassy in the U.K. Thae’s description of life as a North Korean diplomat adds further evidence to my observation that North Koreans overseas who can’t kick up enough tribute to their bosses — perhaps because of sanctions — worry about being punished or purged. That may make them attractive targets for recruitment to provide even more financial information, or to defect.

One could also read Pyongyang’s campaign to improve its foreign trade structure as an effort to get around trade sanctions it didn’t need to evade before. Its raising of taxes on its people may be an effort to make up for lost foreign revenue, although that connection isn’t entirely clear, nor would it be a departure from past practice. Either way, Pyongyang pays a morale penalty for those levies.

Not everything has gone South Korea’s way, however. North Korea’s arms clients in Africa, some of which have long-standing commercial and ideological ties to Pyongyang, have been stubborn targets. For example, despite Uganda’s claim that it would end its military training contracts with North Korea — UNSCR 2270 requires member states to do so immediately — it turns out that Uganda is merely choosing not to renew those contracts.

This blog has also followed Namibia’s illogical and self-serving justifications for its arrangements with North Korea.Despite claims by the Namibian government that it would end its cooperation with sanctioned North Korean entities, that relationship apparently continues. The Treasury Department’s recent designation of its principal North Korean partner, Mansudae Overseas Project Group, a front for KOMID, may make that cooperation more difficult for Namibia and the many other African countries where Mansudae operates. It will send a message to Windhoek that it must enforce the U.N. resolutions, confiscate the factory, and send the KOMID and Mansudae representatives home. For example, the South African insurance company Old Mutual insured some of Mansudae’s work in Namibia. It may hesitate to continue providing that service now. We’ll need to do more of this to give Yun the support he needs.

Then there is the case of Angola, which after a meeting with South Korea’s Second Vice Foreign Minister, said that it supports South Korea’s position on the sanctions, but hasn’t exactly enforced them to the letter since then. The fact that Seoul is dangling an agreement “to boost ties in trade, investment and development” may help. More on Yun’s extensive travels to make UNSCR 2270 stick, here and here, via Marcus Noland.

Reports that Poland and Oman had stopped employing North Korean slave labor may also have been premature. Even Thailand has allowed a new North Korean restaurant to open.

While I understand the importance of showing South Korean audiences that sanctions can work, the stories I linked in this post, and my posts here, here, and here, show a more mixed picture than Seoul’s optimistic assessments. The reality is more a case of two steps forward, one step back, with South Korea making significant gains, but not fast enough, and without enough fire support from the U.S. State and Treasury Departments to put steel on the harder targets.

The question that increasingly preoccupies me is whether it’s already too late. And given the rising talk of preemptive strikes — if only to buy time — will South Koreans be willing to accept the risks those strikes would entail? Stated differently, did Barack Obama and the chaos that rules the streets of Seoul squander our last chance to disarm North Korea peacefully?

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Trump’s tweets show the right instincts on North Korea.

Kim Jong-un’s New Year speech turned out to more interesting than I’d predicted. No, he isn’t going on Atkins; he’s threatening to fire an ICBM that can hit the United States with a nuke. One wonders how the usual suspects at 38 North will spin this speech into predictions of glasnost and perestroika, but for now, consistent with another prediction I made, Kim Jong-un’s transition-year provocations are molding the President-Elect’s policy at a critical moment, and not to Kim Jong-un’s advantage:

For the last several months, Korea watchers have speculated which Donald Trump we’d see making our North Korea policy. Would it be the deal-maker who, in one breath, suggested he’d withdraw our troops from South Korea, sit down with a mass-murderer over hamburgers, and cut a deal? Or would it be the one who, in the next breath, called His Porcine Majesty “a maniac” and suggested that China should kill him? The two tweets Trump posted last night have given us the clearest vision of his North Korea policy since Election day. 

Whatever you may think about trade policy, Trump is unquestionably right about North Korea. China has done much less than nothing to help us in North Korea; it has actively undermined sanctions against it. Its companies sell North Korea the trucks that haul its missiles, its ports let WMD components and weapons pass through on their way to the Middle East and Africa, and its banks are laundering the money that ships North Korean weapons and enriches North Korean proliferators. If the Chinese government hasn’t been willing to help until now, it isn’t going to help unless it faces a much higher cost for its conduct. In fact, it probably won’t be swayed to help at all, but China’s banks and trading companies can be. In the short term, they should be our first targets.

In the long term, our strategy should be to put the North Korean government into something like financial receivership. We should identify and freeze every North Korean account, releasing only as many dollars as necessary for North Korea to import food, medicine, fertilizer, and humanitarian necessities. That strategy must be pursued unblinkingly — subject only to temporary and partial waivers — either until North Korea’s disarmament is verified and it makes fundamental humanitarian reforms, or until the regime no longer exists. We cannot afford to repeat the errors of 1994 and 2007 by throwing away our leverage before North Korea is disarmed, one way or another.

Lest anyone accuse me of proposing a “sanctions-only” policy — and I have never proposed one — our next targets should be the North Korean elites in Pyongyang. We must persuade them that they have no future with Kim Jong-un — that their salvation from purges and a bleak future for their children lies in reunification. How, exactly? Well, read this strategy paper.

We must also reach out to North Korea’s poor, beyond the limits of Pyongyang. We should advocate for their human rights at the United Nations, bilaterally, publicly, and at every opportunity — and we should tell them we doing so. We should help them build the clandestine banks, churches, schools, unions, factories, farms, clinics, newspapers, relief agencies, and police forces — a clandestine civil society that could also become the political foundation of both a national resistance movement and a reunified Korea.

Finally, if North Korea goes through with launching that missile, Trump should tell the military to shoot it down.

Before Donald Trump even ran for President, my wife and I had an involved conversation about what makes presidents effective. We concluded that Reagan was effective, whereas Obama and Carter, despite being much more intelligent men, were not. Why? Because an effective president doesn’t necessarily have to master the details of policy. All an effective president really needs are good instincts about policy, good judgment about appointees, the decisiveness to pick policies and stick with them, and the judgment to know when he’s about to cripple himself with a bad ethical or policy decision. To my liberal friends, and to my friends who are reluctant conservatives, hold that last thought. In fact, hold all of them until we see what the new cabinet and policies look like.

For now, in two tweets, Donald Trump has shown better instincts about the nature of our problem in North Korea, and how to address it, than Barack Obama (undoubtedly a fine man and a highly intelligent one) displayed in eight years in office. When Trump decides to make policy of the instincts he displayed in his tweets, the first man he should turn to is Senator Cory Gardner.

While the Obama administration has implemented portions of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, I encourage the Trump administration to continue with the full implementation and more importantly, the enforcement of the sanctions outlined in the legislation.

In particular, I urge the new administration to utilize the so-called “secondary sanctions,” which target outside entities, or companies, that help Pyongyang engage in illicit behavior. Many of these companies are based in the People’s Republic of China, and the US must not be afraid to anger Beijing by going after them. While the Obama administration has sanctioned and indicted four Chinese nationals and one Chinese-based company for its business tied to North Korea’s weapons program, there are many more that the Treasury Department can — and should — target with financial sanctions. [CNN]

Whether you voted for Trump or not, you should be rooting for him to get North Korea right. So much depends on that. We only get one president at a time. For the next four years, this is the president we are going to have. At this point, if Trump has any designs on making a North Korea deal, the indications are pointing more toward the parody I wrote nearly a year ago than “just another walk in Central Park.”

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Citizens of Pyongyang, My Name is Thae Yong-ho (Part 2)

Either someone in Seoul is reading this site, or great minds think alike. Thae Yong-ho, North Korea’s former Deputy Ambassador to the U.K., who defected to Seoul earlier this year with his wife and two sons, is leaving the protection of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service and entering South Korean society, where he will not remain silent.

The report claims that Thae brought “images of documents related to financial activities at the North Korean embassy in the UK” that prove he did not embezzle embassy funds, but which may also shed light on North Korea’s overseas slush funds and money laundering. That is bad enough for Kim Jong-un, but not nearly as bad as this:

“He had decided to defect to South Korea long ago because of the growing disappointment towards Kim Jong Un’s oppression, and the North Koreans who are living as slaves,” Lee was quoted as saying in the Choson Ilbo report. [….]

According to local press, Thae also vowed to become involved in public activities related to inter-Korean affairs and reunification. [NK News, Hamish Macdonald]

By the accounts of most journalists who knew him, Thae is an articulate and compelling speaker. He certainly isn’t going to make crowds of people pour into the streets of Pyongyang with candles in their hands, but he can do very serious damage to Pyongyang’s propaganda narratives both in and about the South.

In a way that Hwang Jang-yop never could, Thae can become a leader among the divided North Korean diaspora in the South and help build their influence inside South Korea and (with his excellent command of English) internationally. He can explain to young or deluded South Koreans who are sympathetic to, or ambivalent about, the regime in the North that it is not a legitimate keeper of their nationhood or any kind of paradise. He can give us all insights into what North Koreans in Pyongyang really think, even as they profess loyalty to the regime.

Thae’s broadcasts to the North can begin an underground conversation about what kind of society the North Korean people want. He can plant in their minds a vision of how a functioning democracy works. He can explain how tolerant, pluralistic, and representative governments work, and how quickly North Korea can evolve into a democratic society while holding back the disruptive and chaotic effects of rapid political and social change.

His words can have an even greater impact inside Pyongyang, if Thae broadcasts to his countrymen there. He can spread a message of peace, convincing key officials and military officers to quietly disable their weapons, or to disobey orders to fire on civilian targets. He can encourage other diplomats and officials to defect, and to bring key financial and intelligence information with them. He can convince key officials that in the event of a coup, or another historically determinative event, they should make themselves unreachable, or actively join the opposition. He can tell those responsible for the ongoing crimes in North Korea’s prison camps that, depending on the decisions they make at critical moments, they will face either accountability or clemency. 

If Thae’s plans are as ambitious as my suggestions here, recent reports from inside North Korea — admittedly from sources with an anti-regime slant — suggest that there may be an audience for his words. According to Radio Free Asia, Kim Jong-un is unpopular even in Pyongyang, where residents whisper that his is a “pig” and “an incompetent child.” The Daily NK reports that disillusionment with, and anxiety about, His Porcine Majesty’s rule exists across all demographics of North Korea’s population. Ironically, crackdowns and purges following Thae’s defection may have played a significant role in driving Kim Jong-un’s popularity even lower. Defector surveys, which raise obvious concerns about selection bias, offer the only supporting empirical evidence that’s available to us.

Anecdotal reports lend further support to this trend. The Daily NK reports that someone wrote “Overthrow Kim Jong Un” and “Punish Kim Jong Un,” on 5,000-won notes, and scattered them on the streets of Hoeryong. Separate reports claim that anti-government leaflets were found in neighboring Ryanggang Province. Reports such as these are impossible to confirm, but a photograph taken inside North Korea demands that citizens report a series of subversive acts, including “raising or attempting to evoke social problems by disturbing public order,” “watching, listening, copying and disseminating exotic and decadent sound recordings, video, picture, and publications which are inconsistent with our people’s thought and emotion,” and, most intriguingly, “[t]he act of possessing, selling and buying guns, bullet (sic), gunpowder, explosives, deadly weapons.” The implication is that these things occur inside North Korea, and that the regime is worried about them.

For now, opposition to the regime remains muted and isolated, because it lacks a galvanizing voice and an organizational foundation. But according to the Daily NK, North Korean state propaganda that dwelled heavily on the popular uprising against Park Geun-hye may have backfired by planting similar ideas in the minds of North Koreans. More than Hwang Jang-yop, and more than any other person, Thae Yong-ho could be that voice, to Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, and to the wider world.

According to NK News, Thae “will likely remain under tight security while in the South.” He’d better. By speaking out publicly, Thae Yong-ho will become North Korea’s Emmanuel Goldstein. As the Reconnaissance General Bureau attempted on multiple occasions to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, it will stop at nothing to assassinate Thae Yong-ho. He and his family members will need courage, and they will also need protection. Thae’s decision to speak out could be the most dangerously subversive development of Kim Jong-un’s reign.

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Update: This is also a good excuse to remind readers of a recent report by a group of North Korea experts on information strategies that could be directed at the elites in Pyongyang.

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Update 2: More (third-hand) accounts of Thae Yong-ho’s motives and insights, here and here.

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What’s that? You want the Sunshine Policy back? Good luck with that.

If Nate Silver is feeling humble these days, just let him try to predict who wins the next election in South Korea. In the 12 months between now and the time South Korea elects its next president, the ruling Saenuri party will probably break up. God willing, new candidates will emerge to supplant the dismal fare it has served until now. Divisions between the pro- and anti-Park Geun-hye factions may or may not heal. Ban Ki-moon may or may not run. If he runs, he may run with the Saenuri Party, a successor, or something entirely new. The left’s own divisions between Ahn Cheol-soo, Moon Jae-in, and a gaggle of far-left populists may not heal, either. The top candidates currently poll in the 20s.

Having said this, most observers of Korean politics suppose that the political left has the upper hand. Myself, I’m no Nate Silver, and I offer any prediction with low confidence, but I reckon they’re probably right. Over time, voters grow tired of presidents, their parties, and their policies. Memories of the opposition’s own failings fade, and the longer an opposition party is out of power, the more it can escape its record of governance and define itself by its promises — especially by the impractical, disingenuous, or absurd ones. Promises, of course, are almost always more appealing than the dreary realities of governance.

Because this is a blog about North Korea, my interest in South Korean politics mostly relates to the question of what North Korea policies a left-of-center government would actually implement. Wishful foreigners yearn for a return to the Sunshine Policy. And because I (obviously) don’t, I’d like to throw some December pond water on their hopes. Even if the left does win Korea’s presidency, the obstacles to picking up where Roh Moo-hyun left off in 2007, when he tried to turn South Korea’s most vital shipping lane into a neutral North-South “peace zone,” may be insurmountable. 

At the heart of the problem is that North Korea has always been pay-for-play, and in recent years, a consensus has solidified in the U.N., the U.S., and (to a lesser extent) South Korea that paying has made matters worse, not better.

1. Only one man gets rich in North Korea

Without business, the Sunshine Policy would have been nothing but a plan to catapult money over the DMZ. Business was the paisley silk bath robe that clothed naked appeasement in the garb of a transformational philosophy. Business was what allowed Kim Dae-jung to market Sunshine as a plan to leverage greed to form relationships, entangling interests, and the gentle metastasis of soft power. “Good enough for us!,” said the Nobel Committee. One could have pointed out that the little gray men in Pyongyang are already sophisticated enough profiteers and money launderers to finance Kim Jong-il’s priorities. Or that Krupp, I.G. Farben, and Messerschmitt were capitalists, too. But the greatest flaw in Sunshine has always been the North Koreans.

You know who can tell you all about getting rich in North Korea? Naguib Sawaris, the recently deposed CEO of Orascom Telecom, whose stock tanked last year after North Korea confiscated half a billion dollars in profits from a cell phone network joint venture, and when it turned out that a bank Orascom set up in North Korea had ties to a North Korean bank that was sanctioned for proliferation financing.

Ask Nigel Cowie, whose Daedong Credit Bank was blocked by the Treasury Department for proliferation financing, and which was recently back in the news when it showed up in the Panama Papers. Or Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and former Senator Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-Hun, or Roh Jeong-ho, all of whom had tearful partings with their money and their reputations at the departure terminal of Pyongyang Sunan Airport.

Then, there is that last, great hope for North Korea’s slow capitalization — the so-called donju class, a class of traders who have leveraged their political connections to become wealthy (for North Korea) crony capitalists. After a series of high-profile defections, the regime started putting geographical limits on where they could operate, and recalled some of them from China entirely. It may soon a institute a formal taxation system for them, which would likely supplement (rather than replace) the current, informal system of kick-up payments to political patrons. As you might expect, the donju have always been vulnerable to shake-downs by the security forces, whose agents can easily extort them by accusing them of spying or disloyalty. At latest word, top officials have been muscling in on donju businesses, purging them for trumped-up political reasons and installing their own relatives and cronies as the new management. That’s the kind of development I’d expect to see if the effects of sanctions are driving resource competition, but it’s too early to make that connection. 

Or, you could ask most North Korean farmers. Remember those agricultural reforms that amounted to a transition from collectives to sharecropping? The ones that, for most of 2012, were briefly the next great Pyongyang Spring? The reality of that is “not so much.” Some farmers say they aren’t getting the surpluses they were promised and that they’re suffering as much as ever. I know some people take a contrary view and believe that these reforms really are being implemented. Maybe they are in a few places, depending on local conditions and corruption, but the evidence mostly refutes claims of broad-based agricultural reform.

Or, you could ask anyone foolish enough to invest in Kaesong before Park Geun-hye finally shut the whole smarmy boondoggle down in January, after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test. When Kaesong was first set up during the Roh Moo-hyun years, its cheap labor was supposed to attract hordes of international investors and draw North Korea into the global economy. It never quite worked out that way. For years, the investors suffered under North Korea’s politically driven unilateral expulsions, suspensions, arrests, threats of interference, and summary “wage” and tax increases. None of this could have been reassuring to potential investors. It didn’t help matters when, in 2011, President Obama signed an executive order that essentially excluded anything made in Kaesong (or anywhere else in North Korea) from being imported into the United States, the world’s biggest export market.

In 2013, Kim Jong-un unilaterally expelled the South Korean managers and employees from Kaesong. They didn’t return for six months. Park Geun-hye shut it down it again in January, and Kaesong has been closed for almost a year. Given the risks of arbitrary interference, confiscation, and taxation — not to mention obliteration — you have to ask yourself who’d be foolish enough to invest in Kaesong if it reopened tomorrow. It’s like building a resort hotel on top of an active volcano. Of course, Seoul knew all along that Kaesong was a risky investment, so it reassured investors with generous subsidies and risk insurance. Kaesong investors are still fighting with Seoul over their government insurance payouts. For anyone to consider returning to Kaesong now, the insurance and subsidies would have to be extremely generous, which is a perfect segue to our next reason.

2. U.N. and U.S. Sanctions

I’ve long argued that because South Korea never really knew how Kim Jong-il or Kim Jong-un spent their Kaesong money, those no-questions-asked payments arguably violated the U.N. sanctions that have been in force since October 2006. For years, Seoul insisted that the money was all given to the workers in the form of wages — a very dubious claim — and that taxes were paid to a local North Korean committee that had nothing to do with nukes. For political reasons, the Bush and Obama administrations never pushed the issue, but they weren’t comfortable with Kaesong, either. Even during the Obama administration, how Pyongyang spent its Kaesong income was a problem for the Treasury Department.

Then, in January, after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test, Park Geun-hye’s government did something incredible — it said that yes, indeed, North Korea was using Kaesong money for nukes all along. Was this an admission that South Korea was knowingly funding the North Korean nuclear program and violating U.N. sanctions all along? These were logical questions — logical enough that Seoul backed off and said that Kaesong money could be funding nukes as far as it knew. The difference hardly matters, of course, if you read Resolution 1718, which requires member states to “ensure” that their payments are not diverted to WMD programs. Of course, Seoul could never ensure that. When I called them out on that, they sat on their hands, stared at the ceiling, and whistled. But the admission of 2016 means that Seoul can’t just go back to catapulting $100 millon a year into Pyongyang without “ensuring.” This isn’t just a problem for Kaesong; it’s a problem for any engagement program that pays money into Pyongyang’s bank accounts.

Not that it would be hard to avoid that problem, mind you. All they’d have to do would be to get Pyongyang to agree to take its payments in food, or let Seoul pay it by funding the long-underfunded humanitarian work of the World Food Program. Stop laughing.

Three U.N. Security Council resolutions later, there has never been less doubt that Kaesong cash is contrary to U.N. sanctions. In March, the Security Council specifically addressed public and private support for trade in North Korea, but left some wriggle room for Seoul to pretend that Kim Jong-un absolutely, positively couldn’t possibly use Kaesong earnings for nukes (as it had insisted, however incredibly, for years). This month, the Security Council approved much more restrictive language:

“32.  Decides that all Member States shall prohibit public and private financial support from within their territories or by persons or entities subject to their jurisdiction for trade with the DPRK (including the granting of export credits, guarantees or insurance to their nationals or entities involved in such trade), except as approved in advance by the Committee on a case-by-case basis; [UNSCR 2321]

You will note that a U.N. Committee could, in theory, agree to authorize export credits, insurance, and other support. Of course, the first thing the 1718 Committee will want to know is who the South Koreans are dealing with, where the money is going, and how the South Koreans know it won’t be used for nukes. The North Koreans will never agree to that kind of transparency, of course. And if they don’t, they may find Ambassador Nikki Haley unwilling to support them in making that case to the 1718 Committee. Would a left-wing South Korean government try to go around the U.S. and get China’s support for a Kaesong waiver? After all, China might want a waiver of its own for Rason. They could try, but only at the risk of doing more damage to their relations with the United States. Which are likely to be strained as it is.

Even then, of course, Kaesong has always been a dollar operation — the North Koreans want dollars — and Executive Order 13722 makes dollar-denominated transactions for labor exports by North Korea sanctionable. Investors would probably run and hide, and even a general license from the Treasury Department is probably only good until the next nuke test. The uncertainty of President Donald J. Trump might be the last straw, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

3. Human Rights

The last time the United States had a Republican president, its Special Envoy for Human Rights in North Korea was Jay Lefkowitz, who called Kaesong “material support for a rogue government, its nuclear ambitions, and its human rights atrocities.” Strong words, but at the time, one could have dismissed them as a Republican, “neocon” view. Indeed, by 2007, it wasn’t even clear whether Lefkowitz, a decent and well-meaning man who nearly resigned his post in principle, even spoke for his President, who had turned back toward appeasing Kim Jong-il as the Iraq surge consumed all of his diminished foreign policy capital.

To many people around the world, Kaesong looks a lot like slave labor. No one ever knew how much of their own “wages” the workers actually receive. Concern about North Koreans’ labor rights has grown in recent years. It’s now high enough to have merited an expression of “concern” in the latest U.N. Security Council Resolution. Marcus Noland recently made a specific proposal that employers at Kaesong agree to an ethical code of conduct. Employers would come under strong public pressure to agree, but Pyongyang would resist, obviously. Wage theft is their whole game at Kaesong.

Paradoxically — unless you’ve lived there, of course — South Koreans probably care less about human rights in North Korea than people in almost any other civilized country. But South Koreans care intensely about global opinion. If they see that the world is looking down at them for exploiting North Korean workers, that will impact domestic public opinion and public policy to a greater degree than it has in the past (which, admittedly, wasn’t much).

4. The U.S. has turned away from Sunshine.

In 2007, the standard liberal response to criticisms like Lefkowitz’s was that only engagement with the North Korea would really change it for the better. That view persists, but it no longer predominates. I can’t cite a better example than Max Fisher’s 2014 takedown of Kaesong and the Sunshine Policy at Vox:

But it turned out that North Korea was just exploiting the Sunshine Policy as a con. The greatest symbol of this was the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a big production center just on the North Korean side of the border, where South Korean companies and managers contract with North Korean workers. The idea was that this daily contact would ease cultural tension and that the shared commercial interests would give the countries a reason to cooperate. In practice, though, the North Korean government stole most of the workers’ wages, big South Korean corporations exploited the ultra-cheap labor to increase profits, and North Korea didn’t ease its hostility one iota. [Max Fisher, Vox]

I could have written those words myself. Fisher then noted that “[t]he Sunshine Policy ended in 2007, correctly rejected as a failure by South Korean voters.” The fact that South Korea’s sophisticated, powerful, and well-funded lobby was no longer defending Sunshine also cost it much of its American support. In the past, U.S. administrations have been strongly influenced by Seoul’s view, but that pattern may not hold when Donald Trump is President (but more on that in a moment).

Since then, the American consensus on Sunshine Policy projects like Kaesong has shifted immeasurably. Just count the votes for the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Bernie Sanders would have been one of them had he not been campaigning in New Hampshire at the time.

You can’t attribute that shift to any one event; it was the cumulative effect of Pyongyang reneging on deal after deal, testing nuke after nuke, its attacks on South Korea, and its refusal to take Barack Obama’s outstretched hand. By 2013, it was clear that congressional staff of both parties were interested in ways to exert more pressure. Then came the U.N. Commission of Inquiry Report in 2014, the work of the U.N.’s long-absent liberal conscience. To many conservatives, the report confirmed what they’d long believed, but the report’s impact on liberals who dominate human rights NGOs would be difficult to overstate. After that, some liberal groups added their substantial organizational savvy to lobbying for passage of the NKSPEA. By the time North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test in 2016, both the House and the Senate were ready to pass it.

From the perspective of most Americans, North Korea is deeply unpopular and we shouldn’t be supporting it economically. From the perspective of most Korea watchers of all tribal affiliations, Kaesong was a closed enclave, disconnected from broader North Korean society that delivered no visible dividends of peace, reform, or openness.

5. South Koreans have turned away from Sunshine

Throughout his presidency, Barack Obama was personally popular while his foreign policy was generally unpopular — throughout his second term, it usually polled between 10 and 20 points underwater. Park Geun-hye typically found herself in the opposite situation. Although her overall approval rating was seldom over 50 percent, her North Korea policy was popular until the final weeks of her presidency.

In fact, it’s likely that Park’s tough-minded North Korea policy was the one issue that buoyed her poll numbers at all for the latter years of her presidency. Her hard-nosed handling of the first Kaesong shutdown, which lasted from April to October of 2013, was popular with voters. In August 2015, shortly after Park “resolved” the land mine crisis with what amounted to an agreement to fight another day, her popularity soared 15 points to 49 percent, her highest rating since the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster. Not until late September, when the scandal that destroyed her presidency first hit the headlines, did popular support for Park’s North Korea policy fall below 50 percent in a Gallup Korea poll. Even then —

As to whether North Korea is a partner with which dialogue and compromise is possible, 30.5 percent made positive replies, up from 28.7 percent last year. The share of respondents who said they felt threatened by North Korea’s nuclear weapons also fell from 84 percent to 79.5 percent. [Korea Times]

That was the first time public approval of Park’s North Korea policy fell below 50 percent since she took office in early 2013. In the same poll, Park’s personal approval rating was 31 percent. Yet support for reopening Kaesong fell to just 47 percent, and support for resuming Mt. Kumgang tours was almost exactly 50 percent. If Park fatigue affected those numbers, the long-term popularity of Sunshine may be even lower. And of course, if either side of the debate were to gain a credible standard-bearer, the numbers could move a few points up or down.

Those numbers are consistent with data showing a long-term trend away from sympathetic, ethno-nationalist views of North Korea, toward a grouchy, introspective don’t-tread-on-me nationalism. In other words, this isn’t 2002 anymore. At best, the political gain to be had from proposing a new Sunshine Policy is a wash. It may become a net negative if North Korea launches a major provocation soon (spoiler: it will). And if the Trump administration makes clear that South Korea has to pick a side — ours — Koreans may not view Sunshine as a good bet in uncertain times.

Of course, South Koreans have mood swings, just like Americans. Some of them just want things to go back to what they’ve been for the last 20 years. To them, North Korea has been a quiet crisis for decades. Why, from their perspective, can’t it just go on as a quiet crisis? Why shake things up instead of letting things go on as they always have? Why not buy their silence for just a little longer? I understand that sentiment, but good luck buying Kim Jong-un’s silence when he’s nuked up and poised to achieve the hegemony that was the lifelong ambition of his father and grandfather. Pyongyang has never allowed things to go on quietly for long, and when North Korea has provoked recently, South Koreans have increasingly demanded military retaliation. And of course, Kim Jong-un will soon pose a direct nuclear threat to the United States, which changes everything.

6. Donald J. Trump

The other day, I predicted that if the left wins Korea’s next presidential election, it would be on a collision course with Donald Trump over North Korea policy. It’s still too early to predict exactly what Trump’s policy will be, but does this look like a soft-line, pro-engagement cabinet to you? Yeah, me neither. As I’ve said before, Trump’s voters want a tough guy, and Trump wants to be admired by his voters. That’s why I’ve always been more worried that Trump would go kinetic than that he’d sell out to the North Koreans. And if North Korea gets to the point of reaching the U.S. with an ICBM or submarine-launched missile, no South Korean president is going to get a veto on his response to that. Past U.S. presidents have been surprisingly deferential to Seoul’s policy preferences. Don’t expect that to continue if Kim Jong-un can range the U.S. with a nuke.

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