Commentary Magazine


Topic: North Korea

The One Book to Read on Korea

While writing my book chapter on the history of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea and while preparing for a trip to South Korea to conduct interviews a couple years back, I had to get smart on Korea quickly, and hit the books. There is no shortage of books out there: Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas; Narushige Michishita’s North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns; Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci’s Going Critical; Leon Sigal’s Disarming Strangers, and Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, among others. One stood out, however: Chuck Downs’ Over the Line. Downs, a former Pentagon official, traces North Korean negotiating behavior from the Armistice through the 1990s. He emphasizes the importance of negotiating strategy:

How this small, relatively powerless nation uses negotiation to advance domestic oppression and foreign intimidation deserves careful scrutiny. Although North Korea brings very little to the negotiating table, it has consistently won benefits that strengthen the regime’s political control and improve its military capabilities… Were it not for the regime’s careful and clever management of the process of negotiation, few people outside the Korean peninsula would have had any real reason to concern themselves with North Korea.  The negotiating process, and North Korea’s manipulation of it, is what makes North Korea matter at all.

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While writing my book chapter on the history of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea and while preparing for a trip to South Korea to conduct interviews a couple years back, I had to get smart on Korea quickly, and hit the books. There is no shortage of books out there: Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas; Narushige Michishita’s North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns; Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci’s Going Critical; Leon Sigal’s Disarming Strangers, and Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, among others. One stood out, however: Chuck Downs’ Over the Line. Downs, a former Pentagon official, traces North Korean negotiating behavior from the Armistice through the 1990s. He emphasizes the importance of negotiating strategy:

How this small, relatively powerless nation uses negotiation to advance domestic oppression and foreign intimidation deserves careful scrutiny. Although North Korea brings very little to the negotiating table, it has consistently won benefits that strengthen the regime’s political control and improve its military capabilities… Were it not for the regime’s careful and clever management of the process of negotiation, few people outside the Korean peninsula would have had any real reason to concern themselves with North Korea.  The negotiating process, and North Korea’s manipulation of it, is what makes North Korea matter at all.

During the George H.W. Bush administration, Kim Il Sung, for example, played both Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft for fools. North Korean officials would first reveal information to generate concern, and then the regime would suddenly cut access, watching as Western desperation grew, ending ultimately in concession. Making mincemeat out of Jimmy Carter, former Clinton-era ambassador (and Emory University president) James Laney, Bill Richardson, and Chris Hill was even easier.

Downs, who has also served as executive director of Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, highlights the importance of Korean culture, and explains how the North Koreans would often seek to score cultural points and humiliate American diplomats—with everything from rhetoric to seat height—with some American officials being none the wiser.

I read a lot and can often be cynical about books—especially nowadays when so many authors seek to promote their own narrative and worry more about legacy than truth. Over the Line stood out, however. It is far, and is the best example I have ever seen of an author explaining the nuances and importance of culture. When I have taught Iran, Afghanistan, or the other subjects in which I normally involve myself, this still goes on the reading list. And with the current crisis in Korea, it remains the best resource, be it for a policy maker, outside observer, or diplomat.

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Will Obama and Hagel Learn from the Korean Crisis?

From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

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From day one of his first term, President Obama has made outreach to Iran a central pillar of his foreign policy. He spoke of reconciliation in his first inaugural address and, a week later, he told Al-Arabiya in his first television interview, “If countries like Iran are willing to unclench their fist, they will find an extended hand from us.” Both Obama’s supporters and the Iranian government embraced his willingness to talk: Diplomats and partisans sharply juxtaposed Obama’s posture with that of President George W. Bush, never mind that Bush won repeated unanimous UN Security Council resolutions and so achieved the same thing that Obama had—multilateral diplomatic blessing—only with greater frequency. What Bush did not do was stop Iran’s nuclear progress. But neither has Obama. The Iran failure has truly been bipartisan.

Obama has fumbled additional opportunities, however. When Iranians rose up in 2009, he remained aloof and indifferent until it was too late. At the very least, he might have used his bully pulpit to offer moral support to the Iranian people. Now, if reports are to be believed, Obama once again seeks to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory by justifying silence on Syria—Iran’s most important client state—in order to keep the door to negotiations open. Chuck Hagel, too, has dedicated much of his Senate and post-Senate career to outreach to Iran’s ayatollahs.

As North Korea continues its saber-rattling, it behooves American officials to consider the implications of maintaining such an ineffective policy toward Iran’s nuclear program. While conducting interviews for my forthcoming book about the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups, I had interviewed a former Clinton administration official who acknowledged that Clinton’s team understood the flaws in the 1994 Agreed Framework agreement but signed the agreement anyway in order to show progress and because they did not believe the regime would last long enough for the promised reactors to have to be delivered. The Clinton team was wrong, obviously, and nearly 20 years of bipartisan diplomatic failure later, North Korea may finally have a leader who could be crazy enough to unleash the worst violence not only on South Korea, but also on Japan, if not the United States.

With the North Korea crisis escalating, perhaps it is time for the Obama administration to ask if they really can afford to play footsie with the Islamic Republic and pursue a diplomatic strategy that has not only failed to deliver, but also has no promise for future delivery. Perhaps Obama and Hagel believe they can contain Iran today, but they should recognize the North Korea crisis today for what it is: a crystal ball into Iran’s future.

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The Untested Kim Jong-un

The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.

Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.

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The latest crisis emanating from Pyongyang is almost enough to make you nostalgic for Kim Jong-il who died at the end of 2011. Sure, he may have been a murderous tyrant who lived the high life while his people literally starved—but at least he was predictable and conservative in his actions. Not so his callow son and successor Kim Jong-un, who appears bent on escalating tensions with South Korea, the United States, and Japan so as to consolidate his shaky legitimacy to rule the North.

Young Kim’s regime has already said it will no longer abide by the Korean War armistice and that a “state of war” now exists on the peninsula. He has tested nuclear and ballistic weapons. He has cut off the redline telephones that maintained communications with the U.S. and South Korea. He has threatened to attack not only South Korea but the U.S.—in fact displaying supposed war plans toward that end in a doctored photo. He is also widely suspected of launching a cyber attack on South Korea.

Now he is even threatening to close the Kaesong complex where some 53,000 North Koreans are employed by South Korean companies—an important source of revenue for the cash-starved North. Kaesong has survived previous Korean crises and it is likely to survive this one, but it is a sign of how untested Kim Jong-un is that no one can be sure he won’t do something crazy and self-destructive. If Kaseong is closed, the odds of a North Korean attack on the South grow immeasurably—albeit, likely a limited attack, not an all-out offensive.

Faced with ample provocations, the Obama administration has adopted the right tone of firmness. The administration has certainly caught the world’s attention by sending B-2 and F-22 stealth aircraft to overfly South Korea—a clear signal of the kind of overwhelming military might that the U.S. and its allies can marshal if the North reignites active hostilities. The U.S. and South Korea must be wary of a spiral of reaction and counter-reaction that could spark a war that no one wants—but knuckling under now and giving Kim Jong-un further concessions, as the U.S. has done in the past, will only encourage more of this belligerent behavior in the future. Young Kim must learn that he is not going to be rewarded for his reckless militarism.  

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U.S. Intelligence, North Korea, and Iran

This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.

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This week National Intelligence Director James R. Clapper delivered the 2013 “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The document reflects the latest chapter in the cautionary tale about American intelligence and diplomatic failures on the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

In the 2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the intelligence community told Congress “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” In the 2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment was “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.” In the 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment, the assessment now is that “North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs pose a serious threat to the United States.” In other words, in the last two years North Korea has gone from (a) having only a nuclear weapons “capability,” to (b) having nuclear weapons, to (c) having nuclear weapons and missile programs that “pose a serious threat” to the United States.

It illustrates the fact that once nuclear capability is attained, the move to develop a weapon is a political decision, made in secret, detectable only after the fact. Waiting for intelligence about a decision to build a bomb, instead of focusing on nuclear weapons capability, sets the red line where the action can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed. Earlier this month, the former IAEA deputy director stated that if Iran went the North Korea route, it could build a nuclear weapon in “a month or two.” He noted that “if you go back to the nuclear programs which have been revealed [elsewhere], they all came with a surprise,” and that Iran’s breakout would likely outpace the ability of the international community to respond.

Sanctions don’t get more crippling than the ones imposed on North Korea, but they continue to have no effect on its nuclear weapons program. Over the past year, North Korea conducted another nuclear test; displayed to the world a road-mobile ICBM; and placed a satellite in orbit using its own launch rocket. The 2013 Worldwide Threat Assessment states that we “do not know [North Korea’s] nuclear doctrine,” or how it plans to employ its nuclear weapons, but the intelligence community assesses–“with low confidence”–that North Korea would only use them to preserve the regime.

As the Iranian centrifuges continue to spin, and the IAEA finds its demands for effective inspections repeatedly rejected, the P5+1 negotiates with itself, offering new flexibility while Iran engages in what Dennis Ross called last week a “rope-a-dope” strategy. Yesterday, President Obama said it would take “over a year or so” for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. In light of past U.S. intelligence failures regarding Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea, one wonders what degree of confidence U.S. intelligence has in the one-year estimate: low, moderate, high, or slam dunk.

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American Military Retrenchment and Nuclear Proliferation

The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

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The New York Times had a fascinating article on the latest Korean crisis the other day which noted that two-thirds of South Koreans now support developing their own nuclear deterrent–a radical idea for a nation that has been such a close American ally for decades but one that is gaining strength among some foreign policy elites. Significantly, it is not just the increasingly shrill line from Pyongyang which is causing alarm in the South. There are also doubts about the reliability of the U.S. as a protector. The Times notes

Beyond the immediate fear of a military provocation, analysts say deeper anxieties are also at work in the South. One of the biggest is the creeping resurgence of old fears about the reliability of this nation’s longtime protector, the United States. Experts say the talk of South Korea’s acquiring nuclear weapons is an oblique way to voice the concerns of a small but growing number of South Koreans that the United States, either because of budget cuts or a lack of will, may one day no longer act as the South’s ultimate insurance policy.

That is a powerful testament to the growing doubts around the world about American power in the Age of Obama–even if the South Koreans and others would not put it that way. Surveys show widespread global admiration for Obama, but there is growing discomfort with the “lead from behind” doctrine that has come to be associated with his administration. Those doubts are only amplified by the sequester, which Obama dreamed up and has allowed to go into effect, thereby jeopardizing our military strength, because of his unwillingness to reach agreement with Republicans over any deficit deal that does not raise taxes.

It is not just South Koreans and other Asian allies who wonder if the U.S. will be there for them as they are threatened by North Korea–or by a China that is growing increasingly assertive in trying to expand it sovereignty over various islands claimed by Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and other nations with little pushback from Washington. So, too, Middle Eastern allies worry as they see Washington failing to stop the Iranian nuclear program or to do more to stop Iran’s allies in Syria from trying to defeat a popular uprising using horrific violence.

So far those doubts are muted, but if present trends continue they will get louder over time–and we will see the world becoming a more dangerous place. Not just because American power serves to restrain our enemies but also because it restrains our allies–especially countries such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, who could easily go nuclear if they choose. They have decided, thus far, to refrain from fielding their own nuclear arsenals because they have been sheltered under the American nuclear umbrella. But if that umbrella frays–because of nuclear cuts that Obama is trying to implement or because of a general weakening of our defense or simply a decline in our credibility–then they will do what they have to do to protect themselves and the world will become a much more dangerous place as nuclear arms races break out in the Middle East and East Asia.

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Obama’s Commendable Response to North Korea’s Threats

Give credit where it’s due: the Obama administration deserves praise for pursuing a hardline policy against North Korea–in fact a harder line than the Bush administration policy, at least in Bush’s second term.

In 2008, recall, the Bush administration–thanks to the misguided efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and negotiator Chris Hill–announced an accord to lift some economic sanctions on North Korea and remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for unbelievable, and quickly abandoned, promises from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. This was widely seen as a bid–similar to the ill-advised Annapolis conference she convened in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–by Rice to land herself a Nobel Prize, or at least rack up some notable achievement, before she left office.

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Give credit where it’s due: the Obama administration deserves praise for pursuing a hardline policy against North Korea–in fact a harder line than the Bush administration policy, at least in Bush’s second term.

In 2008, recall, the Bush administration–thanks to the misguided efforts of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and negotiator Chris Hill–announced an accord to lift some economic sanctions on North Korea and remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism in return for unbelievable, and quickly abandoned, promises from Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear program. This was widely seen as a bid–similar to the ill-advised Annapolis conference she convened in an attempt to achieve a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations–by Rice to land herself a Nobel Prize, or at least rack up some notable achievement, before she left office.

Perhaps, then, it’s a good thing that Obama already got his Nobel because he doesn’t seem to feel compelled to engage in pointless outreach with North Korea. Instead, he continues to ratchet up sanctions and has even managed to get Chinese support at the United Nations for the latest round of sanctions. The fact that the North Korean regime is threatening in retaliation to erase the Korean War armistice and launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the U.S. is a sign that it is feeling the pressure.

The North Korean threats should not be taken lightly–as the sinking of a South Korean ship by a North Korean submarine in 2010 demonstrated, the North is capable of lashing out in unpredictable and deadly ways. But nor should the North’s threats deter its neighbors from continuing to increase the pressure on this criminal regime.

At the end of the day, third-generation dictator Kim Jong-un is not suicidal: He knows that launching an attack on the United States or a major assault on South Korea will result in the end of his regime. Nuclear weapons or not, North Korea’s antiquated military could not long survive a South Korean-American military offensive. Like his father and grandfather, Kim is only trying to gain concessions from the West by threatening us.

Obama deserves credit for hanging tough in the face of these continued North Korean provocations.

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Iran’s North Korean Example

The United Nations responded today to North Korea’s threats to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on both the United States and South Korea with a new round of even harsher sanctions on Pyongyang. But it is not likely that these latest measures will have much impact on an already isolated communist regime that has no compunction about starving or imprisoning as many of its own people as it deems necessary. Their nuclear threats may turn out to be empty bluster, but whether they intend to further destabilize the region or not there is little the U.S. or the U.N. can do about it.

One shouldn’t minimize the danger that a nuclear North Korea poses to the shaky peace that has held for nearly 60 years along the 38th parallel as well as to the rest of the Far East. There is no telling what this maniacal government will do, and the expectation in some quarters that the accession of Kim Jong-un to power after the death of his father would calm things down has proven to be mistaken. Kim’s latest gambit seems aimed at testing South Korea’s new leader Park Geunhye, and there is always ground for concern that the North’s provocations could set in motion a train of events with unforeseen consequences.

But there is a lesson here that goes beyond our justified concerns about the Korean peninsula. North Korea can defy the world with impunity because it flouted every diplomatic agreement it signed about its nuclear program and wound up with a bomb that forever changed the strategic equation between it and the U.S. The progress of Pyongyang’s Iranian ally toward the same goal and the willingness of the West to engage in exactly the same sort of diplomatic minuet puts the world’s current dilemma in Korea in a sobering light.

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The United Nations responded today to North Korea’s threats to launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes on both the United States and South Korea with a new round of even harsher sanctions on Pyongyang. But it is not likely that these latest measures will have much impact on an already isolated communist regime that has no compunction about starving or imprisoning as many of its own people as it deems necessary. Their nuclear threats may turn out to be empty bluster, but whether they intend to further destabilize the region or not there is little the U.S. or the U.N. can do about it.

One shouldn’t minimize the danger that a nuclear North Korea poses to the shaky peace that has held for nearly 60 years along the 38th parallel as well as to the rest of the Far East. There is no telling what this maniacal government will do, and the expectation in some quarters that the accession of Kim Jong-un to power after the death of his father would calm things down has proven to be mistaken. Kim’s latest gambit seems aimed at testing South Korea’s new leader Park Geunhye, and there is always ground for concern that the North’s provocations could set in motion a train of events with unforeseen consequences.

But there is a lesson here that goes beyond our justified concerns about the Korean peninsula. North Korea can defy the world with impunity because it flouted every diplomatic agreement it signed about its nuclear program and wound up with a bomb that forever changed the strategic equation between it and the U.S. The progress of Pyongyang’s Iranian ally toward the same goal and the willingness of the West to engage in exactly the same sort of diplomatic minuet puts the world’s current dilemma in Korea in a sobering light.

Like the Iranians are doing now, North Korea also engaged in a diplomatic process prior to their going nuclear. Several times they agreed to only use their nuclear plant for peaceful purposes and in exchange for those promises were rewarded by the West. But they reneged on every promise and were eventually able to announce the achievement of their nuclear goal, leaving the U.S. with no plausible method for rectifying the situation. All Washington can do about it now is to help pass U.N. resolutions that don’t impress the North Koreans. Meanwhile, South Koreans and others in the region are left to wonder whether Kim will ever make good on his threats.

The diplomatic situation with Iran is just as bleak as the one that was previously conducted with the North Koreans. The Iranians know they have time on their side, and though their economy is much larger and more dependant on foreign trade, they, too, have discovered that it can survive even a program of tough sanctions imposed from abroad. And if the Obama administration ever does make good on its promise to stop the ayatollahs from gaining nuclear capability, the Iranians also know theirs is a bigger country that would provide a difficult military challenge to any nation that sought to take out their nuclear facilities.

The North Koreans did have one advantage that the Iranians do not possess. The 1953 cease-fire that ended the Korean War and the heavily armed standoff along the borders between the two Koreas may have made any resort to force to stop the North from going nuclear difficult if not impossible. But there is no such predicament to stop the U.S. from a strike on Iran as a last resort to prevent it from going nuclear.

What President Obama needs to be thinking about today as he ponders the implication of Kim’s threats is just how much more dangerous the world would be if North Korea’s ally Iran also had the bomb. It may be that the help North Korea is selling the Iranians may render timetables about Tehran’s progress moot. But whether or not that is true, the West must understand that its current dilemma is a product of the feckless nuclear diplomacy it conducted with Pyongyang under the Clinton and Bush administrations.

More time wasted with dead end diplomacy that only serves Iran’s purposes only gets the world that much closer to the day when there will be two nuclear rogue regimes rather than just one. The longer a decision about using force against Iran is put off, the more likely it will be that North Korea won’t be the only nation making nuclear threats against the U.S. in the not so distant future.

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Vice Media’s Foolish North Korea Stunt

The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:

Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….

“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.

I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:

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The New Criterion and PJ Media might have to retire their Walter Duranty Prize named after the infamous New York Times correspondent who whitewashed Joseph Stalin’s crimes during the 1930s. I think Dennis Rodman has earned a lifetime achievement award in this category, as Bethany’s post makes clear. It is hard, certainly, to top his fawning tribute to the current and past dictators of North Korea. As the AP reported:

Ending his unexpected round of basketball diplomacy in North Korea on Friday, ex-N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman called leader Kim Jong-un an “awesome guy” and said his father and grandfather were “great leaders.”….

“He’s proud, his country likes him — not like him, love him, love him,” Rodman said of Kim Jong-un. “Guess what, I love him. The guy’s really awesome.”

Those words are accompanied by pictures of Rodman yukking it up with Kim Jong-un at a basketball game involving North Koreans and some Harlem Globetrotters that ended in an improbable 110-110 tie.

I am guessing Rodman missed this Human Rights Watch report, which notes:

Kim Jong-Un’s succession as North Korea’s supreme leader after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, has had no positive impact on the country’s dire human rights record. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards. Arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture are pervasive problems. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Government policies have continually subjected North Koreans to food shortages and famine.

Admittedly, Rodman has no reputation to lose to here; this latest foray only reinforces the impression of an out-of-control wild man that basketball fans so vividly remember. But this trip was not just Rodman’s doing. It was underwritten by Vice Media, a documentary film production outfit that is under contract to HBO, a division of the giant Time Warner media empire.

One wonders what Time Warner Chairman and Chief Executive Jeff Bewkes thinks about the use of his shareholders’ money to fund a public-relations extravaganza on behalf of the worst regime on the planet? Did the filmmakers clear this little foray with Bewkes in advance, or was he as blindsided as the rest of the world?

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Rodman Inadvertantly Shines Light on North Korean Human Rights

For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”

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For the first time in at least a decade, the world is talking about former basketball star Dennis Rodman. The former Chicago Bull, known for his “quirky” behavior while winning championships with the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, made news this week with a short trip to North Korea with members of the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team.

The news out of North Korea, both this month and in general, often revolves around its nuclear program and bellicose threats of violence against its neighbors and the United States. Rodman’s visit has stirred outrage thanks to his outspoken support of the country and its dictator Kim Jong-un. Upon leaving the country, Rodman promised that Kim would have a “friend for life” and declared that Kim Jong-un was an “awesome guy” and that his father and grandfather, other homicidal leaders of the country, were “great leaders.”

What could have prompted this effusiveness from Rodman? Despite the country’s total lack of infrastructure, freedom and food supply, enormous shows and basketball matches were put together for Rodman, the Harlem Globetrotters and their entourage. It’s not likely Rodman was aware of the dire situation for most North Koreans given that as he boarded his flight he tweeted about looking forward to meeting South Korean pop star Psy. Even as he was about to enter the country, Rodman couldn’t differentiate between the poverty-striken North and the affluent and capitalist South.

Many stories in the news media of the visit included reports of the human rights situation in the country. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer declared Rodman achieved a “diplomatic triumph,” however a report from his own network told a different story:

It was unclear whether Rodman, who is accompanied by Globetrotters Bull Bullard, Buckets Blakes and Moose Weekes, will be taken to North Korea’s countryside, where aid groups say malnutrition is rampant.

According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of thousands of people remain enslaved in prison camps, which are “notorious for horrific living conditions and abuse.”

It appears the North Koreans provided the group with “a feast” amidst a reported famine. Gawker, a site not exactly known for its moral compass, put together a fantastic “slideshow” of Rodman’s visit, with excited tweets from group members about their hosts interspersed with pictures of starving North Korean babies and children. TIME Magazine had an equally forceful post shedding light on the reality for the average North Koreans Rodman wasn’t allowed to meet. The human rights group Freedom House told BuzzFeed:

“History is cluttered with the examples of academics, philosophers, renowned writers, and eminent advocates of humane ideals who have aligned themselves with or apologized for the world’s most despicable tyrants,” said Arch Puddington, vice president of research. “Given this context, Dennis Rodman’s choice to pal around with a leader who oversees one massive, countrywide concentration camp is very much in the minor leagues of dictator worship.”

“At minimum, however, Rodman should ponder the fact that he is the product of a free society which allowed him to develop his athletic skills, earn millions of dollars, travel the world, and articulate his often very quirky opinions,” Puddington said. “Those freedoms, and especially the last one, are totally absent under the regime of the man he calls his ‘friend for life.’”

Thanks to Rodman’s visit, the world might actually be paying attention to human rights abuses in the country for the first time in a long time.

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Why New Iran Talks Are Doomed to Fail

Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that

he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.

Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.

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Iran and the West are participating in a new round of talks this week in Kazakhstan over Iran’s nuclear program. The odds of a breakthrough? Close to zero, for reasons that Iranian-American scholar Hussein Banai ably explains in this Los Angeles Times op-ed. He writes of Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that

he is increasingly paranoid about the implications of a “grand bargain” with the United States for his privileged position as the chief interpreter of the ideals of the Islamic Republic.

Simply put, normalization of relations between Iran and the United States would deprive Khamenei and the deeply invested cohort of radical ideologues around him of a powerful justification for their arbitrary rule.

Continued enmity with the United States has time and again proved to be a convenient excuse for silencing the reformist opposition (as in the case of the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which has simply become known as “the sedition”) and managing the increasingly fragmented conservative establishment.

There it is in a nutshell: The current Iranian regime can’t afford to bargain away its nuclear program because it fears that if it does so it will not last long. Whereas if Iran does acquire a nuclear weapon, Khamenei expects that this will act as a guarantor of his survival–much in the way that North Korea’s rulers, Iran’s partner in missile and (probably) nuclear research, have managed to cling to power in no small part because of their possession of WMD. For Khamenei, this is quite literally an existential, life or death issue.

Under such circumstances, it is the height of naiveté to expect that more talks will produce any meaningful result beyond buying Iran more time to put more centrifuges online.

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Inspections? Iran May Already Have a Bomb

It didn’t take long for the optimistic story about Iran’s nuclear program in yesterday’s New York Times to turn sour. The paper reported on Wednesday that talks were resuming between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran about resuming inspections of the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities had resumed. It also noted the report in an Iranian news agency about Tehran diverting its efforts from a bomb to research, a development that might cause the West to treat the issue with less urgency. But, less than 24 hours later, the IAEA announced the talks with Iran had failed and that the United Nations watchdog was still unable to inspect the Parchin site where it suspects military applications of the project including nuclear triggers are being constructed. That means the Iranians are free to go on pushing toward their goal without any annoying inspectors forcing them to hide their work.

This is the sort of development that should cause the Obama administration to drop the air of complacency about the other nuclear talks being held with Iran by the P5+1 group whose goal is to talk the regime out of its nuclear weapons dream. The Iranians have already used those talks to stall the West for over a year and there is nothing to indicate that they view the next round of discussions as anything but another opportunity to buy more time until their bomb is ready.

If that isn’t scary enough, as Lee Smith writes today in Tablet, there is yet another reason to believe that the belated sanctions imposed by the West won’t be enough to stop Iran: North Korea.

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It didn’t take long for the optimistic story about Iran’s nuclear program in yesterday’s New York Times to turn sour. The paper reported on Wednesday that talks were resuming between the International Atomic Energy Agency and Iran about resuming inspections of the Islamist regime’s nuclear facilities had resumed. It also noted the report in an Iranian news agency about Tehran diverting its efforts from a bomb to research, a development that might cause the West to treat the issue with less urgency. But, less than 24 hours later, the IAEA announced the talks with Iran had failed and that the United Nations watchdog was still unable to inspect the Parchin site where it suspects military applications of the project including nuclear triggers are being constructed. That means the Iranians are free to go on pushing toward their goal without any annoying inspectors forcing them to hide their work.

This is the sort of development that should cause the Obama administration to drop the air of complacency about the other nuclear talks being held with Iran by the P5+1 group whose goal is to talk the regime out of its nuclear weapons dream. The Iranians have already used those talks to stall the West for over a year and there is nothing to indicate that they view the next round of discussions as anything but another opportunity to buy more time until their bomb is ready.

If that isn’t scary enough, as Lee Smith writes today in Tablet, there is yet another reason to believe that the belated sanctions imposed by the West won’t be enough to stop Iran: North Korea.

As Smith notes, the nuclear test conducted by the North Koreans is more than a threat to South Korea, Japan and the rest of the Far East. Given the close ties between Pyongyang and Tehran, it could be, as one U.S. government told the Times earlier this week that “the North Koreans are testing for two countries.”

Smith makes a strong case for belief that Iran already has access to the North Korean nuclear program and that if they were able to pay for that, there’s no reason why they won’t be able to buy a bomb. Despite the problems the sanctions have imposed on Iran, they still have more than enough cash, oil and other commodities to pay a poverty-stricken and isolated North Korean regime anything they want in exchange for what they need. The fact that this is the third such North Korean test has conducted also raises suspicions that what they are doing is at Iran’s behest rather than for their own nuclear ambitions.

Given the secretive nature of both North Korean and Iranian society, there is much that we don’t know about what either country is up to. But informed speculation about the history of cooperation between the two regimes is pointing toward the North Koreans assisting the Iranian effort to match their success in creating a bomb despite the determination of the international community to prevent them from doing so.

The North Korean precedent by which a rogue regime gulled the United States into thinking they would abide by agreements to stop their nuclear program already was a strong argument against the sort of compromise that the European Union has been pushing for in the P5+1 talks.  But if the North Koreans are actively aiding the Iranian effort, the mindset in Washington that there is plenty of time to wait and negotiate before a red line is crossed by Tehran may turn out to be terribly wrong.

The notion that President Obama’s implied threat of the use of force against Iran would be enough to convince the ayatollahs to give up was always something of a fantasy. But when you combine Iran’s progress with the help the North Koreans may be providing them, the scenario starts looking very grim. If, as Smith rightly notes, the president owes the Israelis an apology for working so hard to restrain them from forestalling the Iranian threat, that will be cold comfort for a world that has become a lot more dangerous on his watch.

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Exposing the Gulags of North Korea

Decades after the construction of city-sized gulags, it appears that the world’s attention may finally be focusing on human rights abuses in North Korea. Predictably, after North Korea’s latest statements on the probability of a nuclear test in the near future, the spotlight is back on the regime. In the past, boisterous proclamations about their nuclear program elicited attention solely on the program. This time, however, “citizen journalists” and Google Maps contributors have shifted the focus to the fate of citizens of North Korea, not just their government, becoming the latest push to expose the country’s miserable human rights record.

Yesterday the New York Times published an op-ed advocating for increased engagement with North Korea over its human rights abuses:

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Decades after the construction of city-sized gulags, it appears that the world’s attention may finally be focusing on human rights abuses in North Korea. Predictably, after North Korea’s latest statements on the probability of a nuclear test in the near future, the spotlight is back on the regime. In the past, boisterous proclamations about their nuclear program elicited attention solely on the program. This time, however, “citizen journalists” and Google Maps contributors have shifted the focus to the fate of citizens of North Korea, not just their government, becoming the latest push to expose the country’s miserable human rights record.

Yesterday the New York Times published an op-ed advocating for increased engagement with North Korea over its human rights abuses:

Abuses are so widespread and severe that the former U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, Vitit Muntarbhorn, described the country as “sui generis — in a category of its own.” He called on the United Nations to take up the case “at the pinnacle of the system” and urged the international community to “mobilize the totality of the U.N. to … support processes which concretize responsibility and an end to impunity.” Until very recently, his calls fell on deaf ears.

Momentum is now gathering pace, however, for the establishment of a commission of inquiry to investigate crimes against humanity in North Korea. For the first time, factors favorable to achieving this have come together, providing a window of opportunity. But that window is narrow.

The current composition of the U.N. Human Rights Council means that such a proposal, at the approaching session in March, stands a good chance of being passed. So it is now a matter of leadership and initiative. A government, or a group of governments, most likely from Europe but with strong backing from Japan, South Korea and the United States, needs to respond to the challenge and put forward a recommendation.

Last week I discussed the possibility that North Korea’s newfound belligerence is due to its desire to secure more international aid amidst a famine. Thanks to “citizen journalists” recruited inside the reclusive nation, more details are coming to light about the famine and reported instances of cannibalism:

The grim suggestion that North Koreans are turning to cannibalism were reported by the Asia Press, and published in the Sunday Times.

They claim a ‘hidden famine’ in the farming provinces of North and South Hwanghae has killed 10,000 people, and there are fears that cannibalism is spreading throughout the country.

The reports come as sanctions are tightened against the backdrop of angry rhetoric over missile testing.

In one particularly disturbing report, a man was said to have dug up his grandchild’s corpse. Other lurid reports included the suggestion that some men boiled their children before eating them.

Asia Press is a specialist news agency based in Osaka, Japan, which claims to have recruited a network of “citizen journalists” inside North Korea. The reports are considered credible.

Today Google Maps added numerous North Korean locations for the first time, making the existence of several city-sized gulags accessible anyone with an internet connection (that includes only several hundred North Koreans, most of whom who have no access to the Internet as we know it). While the information has been available on Google Earth for some time, this is the first time that the more widely used Google Maps application will feature information on the most closed-off country in the world. 

With a nuclear test close on the horizon, North Korea is drawing the world’s attention to its nuclear capabilities, but Kim Jong-un and his associates may want to be careful what they wish for. Increasingly that attention isn’t just focusing on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, but also its human rights abuses–which just became a bit more difficult to hide.

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Will Turkey Join Iran and North Korea on the Terror Finance List?

Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy and an expert on the confluence of money laundering and terrorism, drew my attention to an important story getting lost in the shuffle of confirmation hearing and more violent stories from the Middle East:

The Turkish parliament is scrambling to avert action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body meant to combat money laundering and terror financing, which would place Turkey on its blacklist if it does not adopt legislation preventing terror finance within a month.

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Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracy and an expert on the confluence of money laundering and terrorism, drew my attention to an important story getting lost in the shuffle of confirmation hearing and more violent stories from the Middle East:

The Turkish parliament is scrambling to avert action by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an international body meant to combat money laundering and terror financing, which would place Turkey on its blacklist if it does not adopt legislation preventing terror finance within a month.

Hürriyet Daily News quotes Justice Minister Sadullah Ergin:

There are two countries on the black list of the FATF: Iran and North Korea. If Turkey fails to adopt the legislation by Feb. 22, the Turkish economy may face serious problems. In such a case money transfers from and to Turkey would be possible only after checks by the FATF’s examination mechanism. This mechanism would cause serious problems for Turkey’s exports, imports and hot money flow, which could lead to negative impacts on general parameters of our economy.

The only thing sadder than the fact that Turkey, which claims to be an ally, must be dragged kicking and screaming to stop financing terror is the fact that 150 congressmen have endorsed a country that may soon join the Islamic Republic of Iran and North Korea on the terror financing blacklist. When President Obama described Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan as a personal friend, it is time to ask whether Obama truly understands the differences between ally and adversary.

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Is Famine Behind North Korea’s Latest Belligerence?

Earlier today North Korea released a barrage of unprovoked and unexpected insults toward the United States, declaring that the U.S. is the “archenemy of the Korean people.’’ The LA Times reports on the bellicose language used by the North Korean government meant to strike fear into the hearts of Americans: 

“We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States,” North Korea’s National Defense Commission said in a statement released by the official news service.

“Settling accounts with the U.S. needs to be done with force, not with words,” it said.

[Updated 10:46 a.m. Jan. 24: In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called North Korea’s statement “needlessly provocative,”  adding that a test would be a “significant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

Quietly today, another story emerged from North Korea that is in all probability related to these threats. RealClearWorld reported on the latest deadly “man-made” famine gripping the reclusive nation: 

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Earlier today North Korea released a barrage of unprovoked and unexpected insults toward the United States, declaring that the U.S. is the “archenemy of the Korean people.’’ The LA Times reports on the bellicose language used by the North Korean government meant to strike fear into the hearts of Americans: 

“We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States,” North Korea’s National Defense Commission said in a statement released by the official news service.

“Settling accounts with the U.S. needs to be done with force, not with words,” it said.

[Updated 10:46 a.m. Jan. 24: In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney called North Korea’s statement “needlessly provocative,”  adding that a test would be a “significant violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions.”

Quietly today, another story emerged from North Korea that is in all probability related to these threats. RealClearWorld reported on the latest deadly “man-made” famine gripping the reclusive nation: 

“Ever since Kim Jong-un assumed the position of supreme leader, the media in North Korea and visiting foreigners have reported on the beautifully developing capital, Pyongyang. But in the shadow of the ‘gorgeous’ capital a hidden famine has broken out,” says Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Asiapress in Osaka, a North Korean watchdog with numerous clandestine reporters throughout North Korea.

The dark secret behind all of this new capital glitz and glamour has been a raging famine in the two Hwanghae provinces, where by some estimates 20,000 people have died of starvation in South Hwanghae alone in the year since Kim Jong-il died in December 2011 and was succeeded by his son and heir, the 29-year-old Kim Jong-un.

The North Korean government is famous for its history of extortion in order to extract food and material aid from the West in exchange for suspensions of its nuclear program. In 1994 the government agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for $5 billion of fuel aid and nuclear reactors. In 1996, amid widespread reports of a massive famine, the government withdrew its agreement to the armistice that ended the fighting in the Korean War and began sending troops to its border with South Korea. Two years later, as tensions continued to escalate, the UN decided to send food aid to the country still in the grips of famine following devastating floods. This pattern of violent escalation followed by food, fuel and nuclear aid has continued to the present day. Most recently, following a missile test over the spring, the U.S. decided to cancel its food aid, which could be a contributing factor in this most recent famine. 

Recently the daughter of Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, decided to join an unofficial, and unsanctioned, trip to North Korea (which I discussed at the time). The contents of her blog entry about her visit were exactly what the North Koreans wanted outsiders to take away from the capital city: Sophie expressed her wonderment at the “oddly charming” nature of Pyongyang and described their accommodations as “luxury.” Sophie Schmidt, a graduate student and an admitted North Korean neophyte, was the perfect visitor in the North Koreans’ eyes; they believed that she would take the information presented at face value. To her credit, she acknowledged that was the case:

It’s impossible to know how much we can extrapolate from what we saw in Pyongyang to what the DPRK is really like.  Our trip was a mixture of highly staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments.  We had zero interactions with non-state-approved North Koreans and were never far from our two minders (2, so one can mind the other).    

Despite her minders’ best attempts to shape her impression of the country there were windows into the farcical nature of some of the encounters Sophie experienced, particularly upon entering a computer lab:

Looks great, right? All this activity, all those monitors. Probably 90 desks in the room, all manned, with an identical scene one floor up.

One problem: No one was actually doing anything.  A few scrolled or clicked, but the rest just stared. More disturbing: when our group walked in–a noisy bunch, with media in tow–not one of them looked up from their desks.  Not a head turn, no eye contact, no reaction to stimuli. They might as well have been figurines.  

Of all the stops we made, the e-Potemkin Village was among the more unsettling. We knew nothing about what we were seeing, even as it was in front of us. Were they really students? Did our handlers honestly think we bought it? Did they even care? Photo op and tour completed, maybe they dismantled the whole set and went home. When one of our group went to peek back into the room, a man abruptly closed the door ahead of him and told him to move along.

This highly publicized trip by Eric Schmidt, his daughter and Bill Richardson, the former Governor of New Mexico, was a staged attempt by the North Koreans to project an image of modernization and sophistication that has been reported by other recent and less high-profile visitors. Outside observers are unable to ascertain what exactly is taking place inside the most secretive nation in the world, especially considering tight border controls that have been instituted recently. It’s impossible to know if the reason Kim Jong-un clamped down on border traffic was in order to conceal the famine taking place inside his country. This latest threat seems to fit into the pattern of extortion that the North Koreans have perfected since at least the early ’90s, and if reports of famine are as serious as they appear, Kim Jong-un has an incentive to press for the resumption of food aid before thousands more perish. 

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Dangerous Idealism on North Korea

There’s something about North Korea that gives liberal idealists amnesia. They’re quick to believe that change is afoot, too willing to overlook the evidence that plainly shows that the regime is evil, beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the last week, there have been two instances of this amnesia, and unfortunately for those suffering under the regime, there’s no sign they will be the last.

After North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un gave his New Year’s address a week ago today, Western outlets described his remarks as an “olive branch to the South.” The New York Times said, “The most significant feature of Kim Jong-un’s speech was its marked departure of tone regarding South Korea.” I spoke with the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia Bruce Klingner on Friday about the address and his response was less than enthusiastic about this supposed “about face.”

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There’s something about North Korea that gives liberal idealists amnesia. They’re quick to believe that change is afoot, too willing to overlook the evidence that plainly shows that the regime is evil, beyond a shadow of a doubt. In the last week, there have been two instances of this amnesia, and unfortunately for those suffering under the regime, there’s no sign they will be the last.

After North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un gave his New Year’s address a week ago today, Western outlets described his remarks as an “olive branch to the South.” The New York Times said, “The most significant feature of Kim Jong-un’s speech was its marked departure of tone regarding South Korea.” I spoke with the Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for Northeast Asia Bruce Klingner on Friday about the address and his response was less than enthusiastic about this supposed “about face.”

Kim Jong-un’s speech was delivered on air, the first time that a New Year’s address has been delivered in this manner since his grandfather Kim Il-sung’s last address in 1994. After Kim Il-sung died, the speeches were delivered as an editorial and published in major state-approved newspapers in North Korea. While the method of delivery may have been different, the substance of the speech was nothing out of the ordinary for a dictatorship which has made a game out of fooling Western media into believing there may be change brewing in the famously closed-off totalitarian regime. In 2009 and 2010, many in the West clung to reports of a loosening of economic control or a toned down use of militaristic language. In both years, those hopes were dashed with several acts of aggression: rocket tests, the arrest of U.S. journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee, and the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan. While North Korea’s words may have signaled a change, their actions did not.

Many viewed Kim Jong-un’s speech as a departure from previous language, but Heritage’s Klingner pointed out that there were actually fewer references to “light industry” and other economic liberalization buzzwords than in previous years. This could be attributed to the abbreviated length of the remarks in comparison to printed versions in years past, though year after year, even in written form, there have been fewer references to what many hope are signals of a loosening of the economic stranglehold of the regime. The “notable” aspects of the speech, referring to the hope of reunification, also need to be viewed through the prism of North Korean propaganda. Reunification, in the eyes of the totalitarian regime, mean South Koreans finally giving up their opposition to joining their communist brothers in the North. For the North Koreans, reunification would mean an end to South Korean democracy and would destroy the economy it has built at remarkable speed and efficiency. Last week’s speech wasn’t the “olive branch” that many Western observers seem to believe, it was in fact the opposite.

This week’s news regarding North Korea isn’t any better for freedom-lovers. Former U.N. ambassador Bill Richardson and Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Google, will be taking a trip, despite the State Department’s public disapproval of the visit. The Weekly Standard‘s Ethan Epstein reports that “Richardson has said that Schmidt is ‘interested in some of the economic issues there, the social media aspect.’” The visit will no doubt be used by the North Koreans as a propaganda tool to legitimize the regime’s hold on power. CBS News reported Richardson’s take on why the visit was necessary at this time: “Asked whether the North Korean regime is beginning to change under new leader Kim Jong Un, Richardson vacillated: ‘There are mixed signals…the North Koreans unfortunately launched those missiles at a time that it appeared that the new leader, Kim Jong Un, was opening up.’” There were no such signals, and Richardson’s amnesia regarding the North Koreans’ past record of manipulation bodes poorly for the visit. 

Eric Schmitdt’s participation in the trip is particularly perplexing. In May 2008, Google hosted the only known North Korean gulag escapee, Dong-hyuk Shin and Adrian Hong, the then-executive director of Liberty in North Korea (LiNK) for a visit to Google’s Tech Talks, an ongoing program for those in the technology community to share information. During the hour-long visit, Shin used Google Earth to pinpoint not only where the gulag he was raised was located, but was also able to zoom in close enough to show the buildings he worked and slept in. In 2009, the Wall Street Journal highlighted how one man created a program to uncover buildings and structures within the reclusive country using Google Earth satellites. If anyone in the world could and should know about the evil of North Korea without needing to visit, it is Schmidt. The Standard‘s Epstein quite rightly asks, “Why would the chairman of a company whose motto is ‘Don’t Be Evil,’ hobnob with a regime that embodies evil itself?” 

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Iran, Syria, North Korea and the Emerging Missile Threat

Remember the “Axis of Evil,” George W. Bush’s much-mocked phrase to refer to Iran, North Korea, and Iraq? Admittedly it was a bit of a stretch to suggest that all three nations were cooperating. But there is a new axis which is, alas, much more grounded in reality: Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Their cooperation has already borne fruit in one dangerous area: the development of ballistic missiles.

In recent weeks North Korea has tested a missile and Syria has fired Scud missiles at its own people. The two missile programs are closely related, largely through Iranian intermediaries. Indeed, there are reports of Iranian experts being on hand to help the North Koreans with their missile launch. In the past there has been credible evidence of North Korea exporting missiles to Iran and Syria. Now, at least in the case of Iran, the help seems to be going the other way.

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Remember the “Axis of Evil,” George W. Bush’s much-mocked phrase to refer to Iran, North Korea, and Iraq? Admittedly it was a bit of a stretch to suggest that all three nations were cooperating. But there is a new axis which is, alas, much more grounded in reality: Syria, Iran, and North Korea. Their cooperation has already borne fruit in one dangerous area: the development of ballistic missiles.

In recent weeks North Korea has tested a missile and Syria has fired Scud missiles at its own people. The two missile programs are closely related, largely through Iranian intermediaries. Indeed, there are reports of Iranian experts being on hand to help the North Koreans with their missile launch. In the past there has been credible evidence of North Korea exporting missiles to Iran and Syria. Now, at least in the case of Iran, the help seems to be going the other way.

And it’s not only in the missile arena that Iran and North Korea are cooperating: there is evidence of nuclear cooperation as well. As one proliferation expert has noted: “The centrifuge design that the North Koreans got from Pakistan is very similar to the one that the Iranians got, and so just as the two countries’ ballistic programs are based on common designs and can involve common work, you can easily imagine the same thing for the centrifuge program.”

Regardless of the flow of weapons of mass destruction, the underlying reality is that both Iran and North Korea are racing ahead with missile and nuclear programs that will give them the potential to strike not only regional neighbors but eventually, unless their designs are stopped, the United States itself. This makes it all the more imperative to proceed with missile defense plans and to also do more to undermine the Iranian and North Korean regimes to prevent them from fielding more fiendish weapons.

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Yet Another North Korean Provocation

On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

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On Monday, North Korean authorities announced that their military would require more preparation time in order to send a long-range rocket, due to technical difficulties. Only two days later, the North Koreans fired the missile to the world’s surprise and, soon, condemnation. This is a familiar dance between the North Koreans and the international community, and one that has played out for three generations of Kims in power in the reclusive totalitarian state. In this month’s issue of COMMENTARY, Jay P. Lefkowitz discussed the phenomenon:

The Six Party Talks have fostered a dynamic whereby every time the regime needs foreign assistance, it engages in a provocative action, whether of a military or diplomatic nature, that is seen as a threat to the stability of the region. The international community then condemns the action and threatens, or imposes, new sanctions. The North Koreans promise to be on better behavior and are rewarded with an infusion of hard currency or food aid. Soon, North Korea flexes its muscles again and the cycle of aggression, reaction, and reward begins afresh.

Most Western observers were left guessing as to what was behind North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s decision to rush the rocket launch. The South Korean government has the best insight and intelligence into its repressive, secretive neighbor, and sources there are suggesting the North is experiencing a level of unrest not seen in the nation in years. Reuters reported last week, 

Kim himself warned of the danger of “rebellious elements” in North Korean society last month and recently met the country’s top law enforcement officials.

“There is a large-scale witch-hunt going on,” a senior official in South Korea’s presidential office said.

He spoke with foreign journalists on condition of anonymity due to concerns over rising tensions between the two Koreas over the rocket launch and his comments could not be independently verified, although the South gathers intelligence on North Korea.

Kim has purged much of the top military leadership that he inherited from his father in recent months and often appears in public with armed guards, indicating concerns over unrest, the South Korean official said.

The official said that Kim, believed to turn 30 next year, had ordered modern equipment for his riot police from another country and had also had them trained to handle possible civil disturbances.

“We know that North Korea is sending riot police for training to another country and they are importing a lot of equipment for the riot police,” he said.

He declined to name the country and said that there had been no signs that Seoul could see of unrest in North Korea.

Kim met this week with top North Korean law enforcement officials, according to Pyongyang’s state news agency KCNA and the South Korean official said that the message had gone out to prevent the possible spread of dissent.

“They are trying to root out those who are not happy with North Korea,” the South Korean official said.

Considering the news that the satellite attached to the rocket is spinning out of control, it’s increasingly likely that Kim Jong-un pushed ahead with the launch despite major technical difficulties. Could Kim be worried about quelling internal unrest, and thus decided to risk the satellite’s demise in order to test the rocket–which many believe to be the real aim of the launch? Without any reliable intelligence inside North Korea, the best that most experts can do is speculate. This week’s launch and the resulting condemnation follow a familiar pattern that usually ends in international aid.

Lefkowitz suggests an alternative, starting with linking U.S. human rights interests with its security interests. One might hope, especially after this week’s provocation, that the president has learned that adopting another approach has become necessary.

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No Real Reform in North Korea

Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

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Today’s New York Times article featuring interviews with a handful of North Koreans visiting China should throw a big pail of cold water on the excessive hopes expressed by so many who think that the new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is likely to transform the country he inherited, like a piece of furniture or real estate, from the previous dictator, his dad Kim Jong-il. Like other dictatorial spawn–including, lest we forget, Bashar Assad–the younger Kim has taken a few stylistic steps to distinguish himself from the old man. These include allowing women in Pyongyang to wear Western-style clothes and backing amusement parks for the elite. Young Kim is even speaking in public, something his father famously refused to do.

But the conditions of the vast majority of North Koreans remain grim. As the Times article notes, “The price of rice has doubled since early summer, and chronic shortages of fuel, electricity and raw materials continue to idle most factories, leaving millions unemployed.” The Times reporter quotes a middle-aged woman known as Mrs. Kim: “Why would I care about the new clothing of government officials and their children when I can’t feed my family?” Ordinary North Koreans, even relatively privileged ones like her, spend much of their time simply trying to scrounge up enough food to survive. The article sums up conditions thus: “Emaciated beggars haunt train stations, they said, while well-connected businessmen continue to grow rich from trading with China and government officials flourish by collecting fines and bribes.”

You can read more about what life is like in North Korea in Melanie Kirkpatrick’s fine new book, “Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad.” Sadly, we cannot expect real change as long as Kim remains in power because he knows that a serious opening will jeopardize the good life that he has inherited. To expect otherwise is to engage in wishful thinking.

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Why Is North Korea So Poor?

The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

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The answer should be stunningly obvious, but don’t tell Reuters. In the course of an article about the divergent fates that await victorious North Korean athletes and those who have failed, comes this:

The reality is that life is tough in North Korea in the best of times, however. International sanctions over its nuclear weapons program, a decaying economy and a defective food distribution system have left almost a third of its 24 million people poor and hungry and it has few friends besides its neighbor China.

It really takes an intellectual contortionist wearing blinders to miss so utterly the reasons for North Korea’s failure: it’s a totalitarian state that holds its own citizens in contempt. International sanctions may target the North’s weapons program but, if sanctions were waived tomorrow, the only beneficiaries would be Kim Jong-un and the military. The food distribution system is not defective, just misaligned. After all, it was the regime and military that benefited when the Clinton administration shipped food aid to North Korea. The regime maintains the Songbun, a social classification system that marks North Koreans for life. A tiny few benefit; most are disposable.

Nor was North Korea’s economic decay a passive process. Rather than invest in expanding the economy, the North Korean leadership siphoned all investment into its million plus man army. There is no better illustration today of the human cost of communism and dictatorship than the juxtaposition between North and South Korea.

Reuters may have thought that their explanation of North Korean woes to be a throwaway sentence, a bit of background for those who do not the poverty that blankets North Korea today. When it comes to North Korea, however, there can be no way around blame: The responsibility for North Korea’s dire situation rests solely and completely on its murderous, totalitarian regime.

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Don’t Be Fooled by North Korean Stunts

North Korea’s new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is getting a lot of publicity for the stylistic changes that separate him from his recently departed father, Kim Jong-il. He has actually made speeches in public. He has shown up at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other (unlicensed) Disney characters performed. And now he has revealed that he has a wife, the good-looking young “comrade,” Ri Sol-ju. There have even been reports of a top general getting fired, a move whose import is hotly debated among North Korea watchers–is the regime rent by dangerous schisms or is this a sign that young Kim is consolidating control?

No one knows. Which is precisely the point. Dear Leader the 3rd is getting breathless attention for pulling back the curtain a millimeter on his life. Only in the context of the world’s most closely controlled Stalinist state is this news. The fact that no one has any idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes suggests that we should not be distracted by a few publicity stunts. Life in North Korea has not changed a whit since the 3rd Dear Leader took over from the 2nd. A quarter of a million North Koreans remain confined to hellish gulags and the rest of the population–24 million people–is still living in the most abject poverty and isolation. Meanwhile, the leadership continues to lavish what little money they have on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and their own extravagant perks.

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North Korea’s new dictator, Kim Jong-un, is getting a lot of publicity for the stylistic changes that separate him from his recently departed father, Kim Jong-il. He has actually made speeches in public. He has shown up at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other (unlicensed) Disney characters performed. And now he has revealed that he has a wife, the good-looking young “comrade,” Ri Sol-ju. There have even been reports of a top general getting fired, a move whose import is hotly debated among North Korea watchers–is the regime rent by dangerous schisms or is this a sign that young Kim is consolidating control?

No one knows. Which is precisely the point. Dear Leader the 3rd is getting breathless attention for pulling back the curtain a millimeter on his life. Only in the context of the world’s most closely controlled Stalinist state is this news. The fact that no one has any idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes suggests that we should not be distracted by a few publicity stunts. Life in North Korea has not changed a whit since the 3rd Dear Leader took over from the 2nd. A quarter of a million North Koreans remain confined to hellish gulags and the rest of the population–24 million people–is still living in the most abject poverty and isolation. Meanwhile, the leadership continues to lavish what little money they have on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and their own extravagant perks.

There is a long tradition of imputing reformist tendencies on any new ruler of any totalitarian state, especially when that ruler has spent some time abroad. (Kim went to school in Switzerland and is said to love NBA basketball.) Remember when the jazz-loving Yuri Andropov was supposed to reform the Soviet Union? Or, more recently, when the former Londoner Bashar al-Assad, with his chic young wife, was supposed to reform Syria? Such reformers do come along occasionally–think of Deng Xiaoping or Mikhail Gorbachev–but they are extremely rare and almost never part of a hereditary dynasty of dictators, as is the case with both Assad and Kim.

Let us not make the mistake of wishful thinking in regard to North Korea. It is and remains an evil regime that oppresses its own people and threatens regional stability. The chances of Kim making meaningful reforms from within are slim to none. Only through peaceful unification with South Korea will the grim reality of the north change for good.

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