Commentary Magazine


Topic: North Korea

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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How Insulting Is North Korean Flag Mixup?

Right before North Korea was set to compete in an Olympic women’s soccer match yesterday, an introductory video showed the South Korean flag instead of the North Korean one — prompting the team to walk off the field in protest. The Olympic organizers have since apologized to North Korea, but according to the Christian Science Monitor, this will “go down in Olympic history as a major insult”:

In the long history of the Olympic Games, stretching across more than a century, two World Wars, and a Games put on by the Third Reich, one might think that exchanging the South Korean flag for the North Korean flag might not be the worst mistake ever made by a host nation.

But it might well be.

“This is way more insulting,” says [David] Wallechinsky [author of a book on the Olympics]. “To actually raise the flag of a nation considered your enemy – that’s a real bad one.”

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Right before North Korea was set to compete in an Olympic women’s soccer match yesterday, an introductory video showed the South Korean flag instead of the North Korean one — prompting the team to walk off the field in protest. The Olympic organizers have since apologized to North Korea, but according to the Christian Science Monitor, this will “go down in Olympic history as a major insult”:

In the long history of the Olympic Games, stretching across more than a century, two World Wars, and a Games put on by the Third Reich, one might think that exchanging the South Korean flag for the North Korean flag might not be the worst mistake ever made by a host nation.

But it might well be.

“This is way more insulting,” says [David] Wallechinsky [author of a book on the Olympics]. “To actually raise the flag of a nation considered your enemy – that’s a real bad one.”

However offensive the flag mixup was, it was still less insulting than the fact that North Korea is competing in the Olympics just like any other country while more than 100,000 of its people are thought to be withering away in concentration camps. Those who argue against politicizing the Olympics have some fair points — the games are about the athletes and not the countries. If you ban North Korea, you’d also have to ban Saudi Arabia and Iran, and then there would be a clamor of human rights activists agitating for one country or another to be barred as well.

On a practical level, it’s difficult to get banned from the Olympics, though it did happen to the Taliban’s Afghanistan and apartheid South Africa after their discriminatory laws were carried over to their Olympic teams. Because North Korea’s oppression isn’t confined by gender or ethnic or racial lines, it may continue to get a pass.

But Olympics officials certainly shouldn’t lose any sleep over the flag blunder. The athletes from North Korea deserve as much respect as any other competitors and should be treated fairly. As for their government and their flag — well. Accidentally insulting the DPRK isn’t the same as accidentally snubbing France or Canada, and there’s no reason for commentators to act as if it is.

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What is the UN Secretary-General’s Job?

Several years ago, I took the opportunity to hear UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speak at a Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies graduation. The Secretary-General is not the most dynamic speaker and, if memory serves, his speech was basically pabulum, talking a great deal about meetings he had had; if there was a focus, it was probably on global warming. To be fair, while his predecessor Kofi Annan is a better public speaker, there is little substance to Annan’s speeches as well.

The problem with many of the UN Secretaries-General is that they have redefined their position to be that of the world’s diplomat, and have assumed a bully pulpit for which they have no right. When the UN was created, the purpose of the secretary-general, first and foremost, was to be the UN’s administrator. He was meant to make the organization’s bureaucracy function in a clear and efficient way.

By this standard, both Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan have been abject failures. Take the most recent scandal at the United Nations: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shipped hi-tech computers to Iran and North Korea in contravention of UN sanctions. That is a failure of administration at the highest level. In any normal organization, it would lead to the resignation not only of WIPO’s director, but also that of the UN administration, because it was the failure of the secretary-general’s oversight that allowed this transaction to occur.

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Several years ago, I took the opportunity to hear UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon speak at a Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies graduation. The Secretary-General is not the most dynamic speaker and, if memory serves, his speech was basically pabulum, talking a great deal about meetings he had had; if there was a focus, it was probably on global warming. To be fair, while his predecessor Kofi Annan is a better public speaker, there is little substance to Annan’s speeches as well.

The problem with many of the UN Secretaries-General is that they have redefined their position to be that of the world’s diplomat, and have assumed a bully pulpit for which they have no right. When the UN was created, the purpose of the secretary-general, first and foremost, was to be the UN’s administrator. He was meant to make the organization’s bureaucracy function in a clear and efficient way.

By this standard, both Ban Ki-moon and Kofi Annan have been abject failures. Take the most recent scandal at the United Nations: The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) shipped hi-tech computers to Iran and North Korea in contravention of UN sanctions. That is a failure of administration at the highest level. In any normal organization, it would lead to the resignation not only of WIPO’s director, but also that of the UN administration, because it was the failure of the secretary-general’s oversight that allowed this transaction to occur.

The same is true with Kofi Annan. There has seldom been a statesman who enjoys such a reputation as an elder statesman but whose record rests on failure. As director of the UN’s peacekeeping operation, Annan’s indecisiveness enabled the Rwanda genocide to develop and cost the lives of hundreds of thousands, a casualty count for which Annan has apologized. As director of peacekeeping operations, Annan also presided over the failure to protect the safe haven in Srebrenica in 1995, in which 7,000 men and boys were slaughtered by Serbian fighters. It was as secretary-general, however, where Annan truly failed. He ignored his primary responsibility as administrator-in-chief in order to traipse around the globe at donor expense, giving speeches and collecting laurels. By doing so, he presided over the worst corruption scandal to hit the United Nations, one for which he has never truly paid the price.

The United Nations has an important role. Having a place to convene enemies and combatants is a valuable enabler of diplomacy. If the UN secretary-general is unable or incapable of managing UN affairs, however, then either it is time for the UN secretary-general to resign or it is time to shrink the UN and its myriad agencies back to a manageable size. Rather than sweep the WIPO scandal under the rug, perhaps it’s time to erase this notion of a world diplomat and instead return the secretary-general to his original purpose as an administrator and facilitator.

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What are North Koreans Doing in Iran?

President George W. Bush was widely—and unfairly—castigated for referring to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as “The Axis of Evil.” Academics denied that such diverse countries could cooperate, while diplomats condemned Bush for saying such mean things about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. In hindsight, of course, Bush was right. The only legitimate criticism of the Axis of Evil was that he defined it too narrowly: Certainly, there might have been room for Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez and Sudan’s murderous dictator Omar Al-Bashir, among others.

Blogger Challah Hu Akbar, whom I do not know personally but whose blog I always find interesting, has done some important analysis of Iranian media pictures and asks just what North Korean military officers are doing in Iran?

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President George W. Bush was widely—and unfairly—castigated for referring to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as “The Axis of Evil.” Academics denied that such diverse countries could cooperate, while diplomats condemned Bush for saying such mean things about Ayatollah Ali Khamenei or Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. In hindsight, of course, Bush was right. The only legitimate criticism of the Axis of Evil was that he defined it too narrowly: Certainly, there might have been room for Venezuelan despot Hugo Chavez and Sudan’s murderous dictator Omar Al-Bashir, among others.

Blogger Challah Hu Akbar, whom I do not know personally but whose blog I always find interesting, has done some important analysis of Iranian media pictures and asks just what North Korean military officers are doing in Iran?

Somehow, I doubt they are teaching the Iranians about effective agriculture or the service industry. They are probably not exporting heavy fuel oil. Nor are they the world’s go-to guys for domestic energy generation. Fatwa or no fatwa, the remaining explanations don’t look good. Perhaps its time for the Obama administration to recognize what the Iranians say openly: Negotiations are a ruse, and it’s full steam ahead on their nuclear program.

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The Country With No Artists

There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

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There are no artists in North Korea. This is what dissident painter Song Byeok tried to explain to me as we sat in an art gallery in Columbia Heights, surrounded by huge pop art depictions of Song’s oppressed countrymen and their eternal Supreme Leaders.

“Not a single independent artist in the entire country?” I asked.

“There just can’t be. There cannot be,” Song repeated. “When you block someone’s ears and eyes since you’re born, you don’t even think about doing something individualistic like that.”

It’s quite a claim to say that in a country of 20 million – even a prison-state like North Korea – not one person has dared to put ink to paper and create images that aren’t permitted by the government. Underground artists have sprouted even in severely oppressive societies like the Soviet Union and current-day Iran. But then, if anyone is familiar with the inscrutable subject of North Korean art, it is Song Byeok. Once recruited as a propaganda painter for the regime, Song was later imprisoned and tortured by the DPRK after trying to cross the Chinese border to find food. He eventually did escape the country, and now uses his paintbrush to satirize and condemn the regime he was once compelled to glorify.

Song’s most recognizable image, hanging on a nearby wall, is a massive painting of the late Dear Leader donning Marilyn Monroe’s iconic white dress and coquettish pose. Behind me is one of Song’s more disturbing works, a painting of bony-legged, toothless children embracing a bloblike Kim Jong Il as he crushes them in a bearhug. On a nearby table lies what, at first glance, appears to be a traditional Korean ink scrollpainting. But instead of rolling hills and farmlands, it is a panorama of totalitarianism, complete with looming monuments to the omniscient rulers and forced labor camps.

Song’s paintings strike an odd balance between humor and horror. Many evoke the classic pop art style, with solid backgrounds, cheerful commercial allusions, and bright primary colors serving as a haunting contrast to the subject matter.

The artist has a quiet manner, and speaks little to no English. We talked through a translator. On Friday night, he opened his first art expo in D.C. to a packed house, and during our interview on Saturday afternoon people trickled in and out of the exhibit, buying prints of his work.

Despite Song’s artistic training, he claims that he never considered drawing anything anti-government while living in North Korea. Not due to fear of discovery, he explained, but because the independence of thought necessary to create unofficial art simply doesn’t exist in the state.

“The fact is that I would never even think about it,” said Song. “That is why I wouldn’t ever think about the risks.”

The dearth of art may seem like the least of concerns in a country where many die of malnutrition and treatable illnesses. But the physical suffering is only one tragedy of North Korea. Other tyrants have also starved and brutalized the bodies of their own people, but the North Korean government has achieved unprecedented success when it comes to starving its peoples’ minds and souls. The DPRK’s oppression is so total that Song maintains he once couldn’t even fathom drawing anything subversive about a government he eventually risked death and torture to try to escape.

The truth is, nobody – not even Song Byeok – can say with absolute certainty that there are no underground artists inside the borders of North Korea. Though if any exist, we would likely never know about or see their work.

The other alternative, far more unsettling, is that Song is right – that North Korea truly and horribly is the first state in the world where art has ceased to exist.

While Song is now out of the physical reach of the North Korean government, some shackles remain. Even “Song Byeok” is a pseudonym, to protect family still in the country. He says his art has already caught the eye of the upper ranks of the regime, something he’s openly proud of.

Song views his art as more than just a mode of self-expression and catharsis. He acknowledges that his work has a political objective, and says his main goal “is to be able to inform the people about how valuable freedom is.”

That desire extends beyond just North Korea. “The next country I’m planning to portray is Afghanistan, the women in Afghanistan, and the way they’re treated in the name of religion,” he told me, adding that he was disturbed by the fact that Afghan women can be stoned to death for simply running away with someone they love.

But for now, the artist seems preoccupied with his home country, and his hope that “North Korea can get better.” Song says his paintings are ideally intended to reach the public of North Korea, as implausible as that idea seems. “They’ll pass out of shock,” he predicted.

Song said that even in a country without artists, the public would still grasp the meaning of his paintings. “[They] will definitely understand the message,” he told me. “Because unconsciously they do know something is not right in society. That’s why they would understand right away.”

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Should U.S. Shoot Down N. Korean Missile?

Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

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Michael Auslin of the American Enterprise Institute has a suggestion worth heeding regarding the impending North Korean missile launch (supposedly to loft a satellite into orbit): He advises that the U.S., working with our allies South Korea and Japan, should shoot down the missile. With the Aegis ship-borne ballistic-missile defense system in place, the U.S. surely has the means to do so. And with North Korea’s launch being in violation of UN resolutions as well as Pyongyang’s own commitments made as recently as February 20, the U.S. has ample right to do so.

Auslin is convincing in arguing that this will not start a war with the North but will signal a renewed seriousness in American-led counter-proliferation efforts. This is especially important to do because North Korea has a young, untested leader: now is the time to mold his behavior and show that he will not be allowed to get away with murder, both literally and metaphorically, as his father did so often in his dealings with the West. This would be a salutary lesson not only for the North Korean regime but also for other rogue states around the world, most notably Iran.

Imagine if the U.S. had taken tougher action in the 1990s to prevent North Korea from going nuclear–or since then to punish it for its violations of international law. Instead,we have engaged in one round of fruitless diplomatic wrangling after another, constantly offering the North Koreans generous incentives to abandon their nuclear efforts only to have the North Koreans violate all of their commitments. This experience of American passivity no doubt encourages the mullahs into pursuing their own nuclear ambitions more recklessly than ever. With Iran poised on the brink of going nuclear, now would be a good time to prove that we will not sit supinely back and accept the world’s most dangerous weapons spreading into the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes. Shooting down a North Korean missile launch would be a dramatic yet not reckless way to make the point.

 

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U.S. Intelligence Flying Blind on Iran

Today’s front page New York Times feature detailing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran isn’t working to build a nuclear weapon ought to provide encouragement for those opposed to tough American action on the issue. Bookended with parallel arguments being put forward by many in the Washington foreign policy establishment that a nuclear Iran would be easily contained, this presents the country with a pair of calming notions: Iran isn’t going nuclear but even if it is, it’s no big deal.

However, the most distressing aspect of the piece, which is the product of highly placed anonymous sources within the intelligence establishment, is not so much the lack of alarm on the part of those who are supposed to be the nation’s eyes and ears so much as the fact that they are also willing to admit that they haven’t a clue as to what is actually happening in Iran. The article contains startling admissions that the Islamist tyranny is a mystery to American officials. One went so far as to say that U.S. intelligence agencies view it as even more of a closed book to them than the hermit-like regime in North Korea. Considering their disgraceful failure to prepare the government for the possibility that the North Koreans were on the brink of nuclear capability, this confession should undermine the credibility of the same officials’ boast that they are certain no Iranian nuke is in the works.

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Today’s front page New York Times feature detailing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies that Iran isn’t working to build a nuclear weapon ought to provide encouragement for those opposed to tough American action on the issue. Bookended with parallel arguments being put forward by many in the Washington foreign policy establishment that a nuclear Iran would be easily contained, this presents the country with a pair of calming notions: Iran isn’t going nuclear but even if it is, it’s no big deal.

However, the most distressing aspect of the piece, which is the product of highly placed anonymous sources within the intelligence establishment, is not so much the lack of alarm on the part of those who are supposed to be the nation’s eyes and ears so much as the fact that they are also willing to admit that they haven’t a clue as to what is actually happening in Iran. The article contains startling admissions that the Islamist tyranny is a mystery to American officials. One went so far as to say that U.S. intelligence agencies view it as even more of a closed book to them than the hermit-like regime in North Korea. Considering their disgraceful failure to prepare the government for the possibility that the North Koreans were on the brink of nuclear capability, this confession should undermine the credibility of the same officials’ boast that they are certain no Iranian nuke is in the works.

Many writing about the intelligence about Iran continually speak of the days before the invasion of Iraq when we were assured by the government that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. Since it was already proven that he had used chemical weapons on his own people and had a nuclear program before Israel destroyed the Osirak reactor in 1981, these were not unreasonable conclusions even if they turned out to be wrong. However that failure, which led to charges that the intelligence community’s convictions about Iraq were wrongly influenced by political considerations, has led to a passionate determination on the part of those in charge that they will never sign off on any conclusion about this sort of an issue again if it will be used as an excuse to go to war. Like generals who always prepare for the surprises they faced in the previous war, America’s spies will never raise the alarms about WMDs again.

Fear of repeating mistakes is understandable. But history rarely repeats itself in this manner. That makes beliefs grounded in that fear often as wrongheaded as the original errors. If the intelligence community’s beliefs about Iraq were incorrectly influenced by a desire to agree with the Bush administration’s predilections then it is just as easy to argue that its current views about Iran might be just as mistaken.

But no matter what is influencing their opinions, it is difficult to work up much confidence in the conclusions of agencies that are so open about the fact that they are flying blind in Iran. Though the anonymous officials have confidence in their non-human assets, they are quick to dismiss any evidence, such as the recent satellite images that have led the International Atomic Energy Agency to suspect that work on weaponization of nuclear material is being carried on in Iran simply because it does not fit into their preconceptions about the regime. But it’s clear that the lack of input about Iranian intentions that can only come from real human intelligence has crippled American agencies to the point where it has become an article of faith on their part that they must be right, even if they can’t back up those conclusions with any evidence.

What we are witnessing here is the sort of cyclical group-think that will be reversed once again if the Iranians confound our spooks the way the supposedly easier to read North Koreans did. Another U.S. intelligence failure will simply make their analysts lean more on the side of action the next time around. But the problem for Israel, the Middle East and the world is that if they are wrong about Iran, the consequences of that mistake will be far worse than even those generated by the Iraq disaster.

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German Paper: North Korea Tested Nuclear Warhead for Iran

Blogger John Galt picks up this story from the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zietung:

North Korea detonated two secret tests of atomic warheads with highly enriched uranium in 2010, according to a German press report. The newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported with reference to western security circles, as some secret services assumed that the government in P’yongyang at least one of these tests had carried out for the Iranians. This would mean that Teheran, with North Korean aid, has constructed and already tested an atomic warhead. According to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, this assumption is based on data of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

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Blogger John Galt picks up this story from the Austrian newspaper Wiener Zietung:

North Korea detonated two secret tests of atomic warheads with highly enriched uranium in 2010, according to a German press report. The newspaper Welt am Sonntag reported with reference to western security circles, as some secret services assumed that the government in P’yongyang at least one of these tests had carried out for the Iranians. This would mean that Teheran, with North Korean aid, has constructed and already tested an atomic warhead. According to the newspaper Welt am Sonntag, this assumption is based on data of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO).

Nothing but nothing will get Iran’s media and academic apologists to admit that the mullahs are pursuing a nuclear weapon. Their newest semantic trick is to post up on the word “building” and insist that the Iranians aren’t physically constructing a bomb, which is silly inasmuch as of course it’s true. They’re merely building all the parts that go into creating a nuclear weapon – detonators, warheads, highly enriched nuclear material – and when those are finished, then they’ll assemble them all together.

But the apologists are part of a coordinated campaign to downplay the Iranian threat. They’ve got their talking points, and they’re going to push them. And – when Iran does go nuclear – these self-styled experts will transition seamlessly to insisting that Iran will never use the nuclear weapons that they said Iran was never going to build.

Meanwhile, the administration is misleading the public about Iran’s hegemonic intentions and regional posture, according to the inside-baseball security bulletin NightWatch:

The U.S. spokesman said there was nothing particularly noteworthy about the latest deployment of the warships. That statement is not accurate because the Iranians showed they are prepared to use military power, such as it is, in support of their allies. That is not a trivial demonstration of intent. The navy’s execution seems to have fallen short, but the leadership’s intention is clear, which is backed up by the decision to cut crude exports to France and the UK. Iranian threats look serious, never mind that they also are potentially suicidal.

The hope, of course, is that the administration is just being disingenuous. The president’s bumbling diplomacy has resulted in an Iran that’s able to deploy warships on behalf of allies and a regional situation amenable to same. So the White House obviously has an interest in waving that away.

But there’s always the possibility they really do believe having Iranian ships deployed in the eastern Mediterranean on behalf of Syria is just how things are. That would be worrisome. The next step after helping allies is targeting enemies, and Iran has already threatened to use its naval assets to start a war with Israel. So it would be better if the White House does in fact understand the significance of Iran’s naval deployments, is planning accordingly, and is just lying to the rest of us about it.

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Dudamel is Not Another Toscanini

Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

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Gustavo Dudamel may not be Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin, but for those who follow the world of classical music, there’s little doubt the 31-year-old is a very big deal indeed these days. The native of Venezuela is the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and has become the latest superstar of the symphonic set. His charisma and trademark hairdo of flowing curls have helped propel his orchestra into a series of performances that are being broadcast in movie theaters around the country. But the talented conductor is also the focus of some unflattering coverage because of the political implications of his ties to Venezuelan institutions.

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the LA Philharmonic’s tour of Dudamel’s native land has thrown a spotlight on his mentor José Antonio Abreu and the youth music program El Sistema that set him on the path to stardom. Whether he intended to do so or not, Dudamel has allowed himself to be used as a prop of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela’s dictatorial president whose office took over El Sistema two years ago. Instead of using his international prestige to stand up against Chavez’s efforts to subvert democracy, Dudamel may have become one more artistic façade for a government hell-bent on destroying human rights in Venezuela. In doing so, he has become part of a long tradition of morally obtuse musicians who played for dictators.

In addition to the current tour that is being used by Chavez to burnish his image at home, Dudamel conducted the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela (for which he also serves as music director) in the national anthem for the initial broadcasts of a new government television channel that replaced an independent channel shut down by Chavez for criticizing his administration. The televised concert was, as the Times noted, “dominated by images of Mr. Chavez and the phrase ‘Onward, Commandante!’”

So while the likeable Dudamel has become a classical star here in the United States, he has also become a symbol of the way every aspect of Venezuelan culture has been taken over by the Chavez regime to the detriment of his country’s freedom and the security of the region.

Many classical musicians have never been squeamish about taking coin from the hands of dictators or about allowing their talents to be purchased for the purpose of bolstering evil regimes. In one of the most recent instances, the New York Philharmonic accepted an invitation to play before the leadership of one of the craziest and most oppressive governments in the world: North Korea. While the New Yorkers claimed their music would be a symbol of freedom and improving relations, the only ones to benefit from the show were the Communist regime and the orchestra.

But there is another more admirable tradition in the arts: that of the artist who puts principle above all else and refuses to bow down to tyrants. The most distinguished example  is the famed conductor Arturo Toscanini, who was an ardent foe of fascism in his Italian homeland. After an initial flirtation with Benito Mussolini’s movement, Toscanini defied the dictator and became a symbol of resistance to his rule. He suffered attacks and insults, and it was only his status as an international superstar that saved him from a worse fate. During this period it should be noted that Toscanini also conducted the inaugural performance of the fledgling Palestine Orchestra (today the Israel Philharmonic) that was largely comprised of Jewish refugees from Germany. He only returned to Italy after the Second World War and the demise of fascism.

Dudamel may be a wonderful music talent and have a long, celebrated career ahead of him. But the laurels that go to those artists, who, at their personal cost, stand up for freedom, will not go to him. He may be a fine conductor, but Gustavo Dudamel is no Toscanini.

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U.S. Getting Smart Too Late on Iran

If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

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If you look at the “2012 Worldwide Threat Assessment” presented on February 16 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper to the Senate Armed Services Committee, and compare it with the “2011 Worldwide Threat Assessment,” you find a startling development. Last year, the assessment was “we do not know whether [North Korea] has produced nuclear weapons, but we assess it has the capability to do so.” This year it is, “North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.”

The new assessment is apparently based on a revised judgment, not new intelligence, since it cites the same evidence as the 2011 assessment, but comes to a different conclusion. It illustrates the fact that the key is nuclear weapons capability, not production. Once capability is achieved, the critical technical line has been crossed; after that, production is a political decision that cannot easily be discovered until after the fact. As Iran heads down the same path traversed by North Korea, consider Clapper’s February 16 responses to Sen. Lindsey Graham on Iran’s activities:

SEN. GRAHAM: Do you think they’re building these power plants for peaceful nuclear power generation purposes?

CLAPPER: That remains to be seen.

SEN. GRAHAM: You have doubt about the Iranians’ intention when it comes to making a nuclear weapon?

CLAPPER: Uh-h, I do.  I, I, uh, I —

SEN. GRAHAM: You’re not so sure they’re trying to make a bomb? You doubt whether or not they are trying to create a nuclear bomb?

CLAPPER: I think they are keeping themselves in a position to make that decision, but there are certain things they have not yet done and have not done for some time.

SEN. GRAHAM: How would we know when they have made that decision?

CLAPPER: I am happy to discuss that with you in closed session.

SEN. GRAHAM: Well I guess my point is that I take a different view. I’m very convinced that they’re going down the road of developing a nuclear weapon. I can’t read anyone’s mind, but it seems logical to me that they believe that if they get a nuclear weapon they’ll become North Korea

What we do know Iran has done – and has been doing for some time – is build a “covert” uranium enrichment facility, constructed underground in the mountains near Qom, hidden for years from the international community, with enrichment operations commencing in “blatant disregard” of multiple UN and IAEA resolutions, with “no plausible justification” except to bring Iran “a significant step closer to having the capability to produce weapons-grade highly enriched uranium.” The quoted language is from Hillary Clinton’s press release last month. The huge underground site is a major expansion of Iran’s program.

Last month, President Obama said America is determined to prevent Iran from “getting a nuclear weapon.” Secretary Panetta said if we “get intelligence that they are proceeding with developing a nuclear weapon then we will take whatever steps necessary to stop it.” But waiting for intelligence about getting a nuclear weapon – instead of preventing nuclear weapons capability – sets the red line where a violation can neither be timely detected nor effectively reversed, as the North Korea experience demonstrates.

A group of 32 senators introduced a resolution on February 16 that would affirm a “vital national interest” in preventing Iran from “acquiring a nuclear weapons capability,” and reject any policy relying on “containment” of a nuclear weapons capable Iran. It is an effort to avoid repeating the sad story of American diplomacy and intelligence between 2003 – when President Bush declared the U.S. would “not tolerate nuclear weapons in North Korea” – and 2012, when Director Clapper acknowledged that North Korea has produced nuclear weapons.

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Best Option to Stop Nukes? The Military.

Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly served as a special adviser on Iran policy in the Defense Department, has an excellent article in Foreign Affairs on why a U.S. attack on Iran is the least bad of the available options. Kroenig lays out a detailed argument for why military action is feasible, why it’s preferable to a nuclear Iran and what the U.S. could do to minimize the inevitable fallout, and I sincerely hope Washington policy makers are reading it.

But there’s another argument that’s worth adding to Kroenig’s list: the relative track records of military versus nonmilitary efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

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Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly served as a special adviser on Iran policy in the Defense Department, has an excellent article in Foreign Affairs on why a U.S. attack on Iran is the least bad of the available options. Kroenig lays out a detailed argument for why military action is feasible, why it’s preferable to a nuclear Iran and what the U.S. could do to minimize the inevitable fallout, and I sincerely hope Washington policy makers are reading it.

But there’s another argument that’s worth adding to Kroenig’s list: the relative track records of military versus nonmilitary efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.

In an article in the New York Times last week, another former U.S. official intimately involved in nuclear policy — Robert Gallucci, who served as chief negotiator with North Korea during President Bill Clinton’s administration — criticized the Bush administration for not taking a hard line on Pyongyang’s transfer of nuclear technology to Damascus. Syria, he noted dryly, might well have nuclear weapons today “had it not been for Israel’s version of a nonproliferation policy — aerial bombardment of the site.” And while Gallucci didn’t mention it, the same is true of Iraq.

In fact, Syria and Iraq are the only two countries where military action has ever been tried to halt a nuclear program. And so far, both are nuke-free. Moreover, in both cases, military action spared the world a nightmare. The current unrest in Syria would create a real danger of terrorist groups obtaining nuclear materiel had Israel not destroyed Syria’s reactor in 2007. And by bombing Iraq’s reactor in 1981, Israel made it possible for a U.S.-led coalition to go to war to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait – an invasion that, had it gone unchecked, would have destabilized the entire vital oil-producing Gulf region, but which the world would have had to swallow had Iraq had nukes by then.

By contrast, consider the track record in places where military action wasn’t tried, like Pakistan and North Korea. Both not only have the bomb, but have merrily proliferated ever since to some of the world’s worst regimes. And in Pakistan’s case, there’s the added fear that radical Islamists will someday take over the unstable country, along with its nukes.

In fact, nonmilitary sanctions have never persuaded any country to abandon a nuclear program: The few countries that have scrapped such programs did so not in response to sanctions, but to domestic developments (regime change in South Africa) or to fear of military action (Libya after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003).

So far, the same is proving true in Iran, where years of nonmilitary sanctions have slowed its nuclear development, but have utterly failed to halt it, or to alter its leaders’ determination to pursue it. That confronts America with a stark choice: stick to nonmilitary methods that have never succeeded in the past until Iran becomes the next North Korea, or switch to military methods, which have worked in the past.

For if history is any guide, there is no third option.

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