Friday, February 17, 2006

Just How Important are Sanctions

Based on developments over the last few weeks, I am beginning to be convinced that the sanctions leveled at North Korea for its illicit production of fake US currency and general money laundering/illegal activities is having a deep impact. NK's breathing room continues to shrink as more Korean firms ceased interactions with banks suspected of being linked to NK money laundering activities. Added to that list of banks is Banco Delta Asia itself who, having been the focal point of US efforts to cut off NK's illicit activities, has pledged to cut off ties with NK. One would not be too far off to say that such action nearly qualifies as an admission to guilt.

On top of that, China has been applying pressure (atleast rhetorically). Earlier, China had publicly supported US accusations (along with Japan, which speaks volumes all by itself). According to reports, President Hu Jintao urged Kim Jong-il to cease money laundering operations.

KJI had his own piece to contribute to the conversation and reportedly admitted that he is concerned that sanctions might be severely undermining his regime. The report alleged that KJI is actually afraid that sanctions could cause collapse. Albeit, this report is a bit hard to verify, but the possibility must be considered, especially considering what measures NK has taken: attacking the US rhetorically, appealing for Japanese help, offering to aid in cracking down on global counterfeiting, and demands that S. Korea provide fertilizer aid.

South Korea has vacillated on the issue. They were the last to defend the US sanctions and then swiftly took back the support. US Ambassador to Korea has been a target in S. Korea ever since he labeled NK a "criminal regime". However, it seems that the S. Koreans weren't in the dark, but were actually hiding that they knew more than they were willing to admit. A recent change of tone seems to be not only a move to counteract bad press for their conspicuous silence on (and even defense of) N Korea's money laundering but also an attempt for Ban Ki-moon
to appear as a mature global politician so as to buffer his bid for UN Secratary General. Ban's pressure on N. Korea is the first time (that i have noticed) that a substantially high ranking official has made a demands on NK to discontinue "illegal activity".

According to the Bank of Korea, and seemingly in opposition to a possible KJI admission, these sanctions are not really having that big an effect. According to the report, sanctions and their effect on the NK economy is driving them further into the arms of the Chinese (I would argue that kicking out the World Food Program and all other humanitarian NGOs already had done a good job of making NK dependent on China - and Korea). However it doesn't seem that China remains the most willing partner. Their assessment of the situation, both in public and in "private", have been attempts to force NK to cut the bull. A WSJ article has the opposite assessment and notes that NK's economy has "ground to a halt". If money laundering was a significant source of income, the death of NK's hub with Banco Delta and the likely timidity this has produced in any other NK front companies has probably rocked the boat more than a little. However, we unfortunately don't know. Such is the nature of organized crime. For the US's part, they haven't moved and inch and want to see the plates before they stop the pressure.

This issue could reshape how North East Asia and the US deal with N. Korea in the future. If providing consistent and substantial pressure can prove successful, my hope is that it may become a tool (not necessarily standard operating procedure) in the US international relations arsenal on the Korean peninsula.

Japan and North Korea Meet

Representatives from both countries sat down together for intense talks that addressed issues ranging from the abduction of Japanese citizens to the possibility of normalizing relations. The abductions issue [there is a great article on N. Korea's underground efforts to kidnap foreigners and force them to train N. Korea operatives in both culture and language here] had a session that lasted nine hours as Japan and N. Korea tried to come to a consensus. They ultimately failed to resolve anything.

The Japanese reaction was harsh. The Japanese government and people have been extremely mad about the abductions and nearly leveled sanctions on North Korea a few years back. However, N. Korean threats that such sanctions would be considered an act of war cooled the Japanese government's resolve despite consitent popular support for the sanctions. This time, at least increased pressure and possible sanctions are on the horizon. However, it is hard to imagine things getting much worse than they already are as Japan and N. Korea's trade reached its lowest level since 1977.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Muntarbhorn Sounds Off

Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur for NK human rights, sounded off this week as he was in Korea and attending the Asian Human Rights Forum [AHRF]. He is one of my favorites in the NKHR world as he is often uncharacteristically outspoken for a UN official. This weeks topic? Making it clear where he stands on refugees:
"The international definition of refugees also covers those who don't leave the country of origin for persecution, but fear persecution upon return," he said.

"So you don't necessarily have to leave DPRK because of well- founded prosecution to become a refugee, but even if you didn't leave because of persecution, for example you left because of hunger but you fear persecution when sent back, you are also (a) refugee (from the) international perspective,"
Of course there is little the man can actually do given that NK will NEVER let him in for an inspection and the UN is almost as likely to ever try to do anything about it.

Muntarbhorn also moderated a session at the AHRF in which a handful of experts talked about issues mainly concerning human trafficking and the effects of famine. Here are some choice facts:
(Norma Kang Muico)said that about 40,000 North Korean children die of malnutrition and related diseases every year.

He said that North Korean women taking refuge in China are being sold to rural Chinese for 400-10,000 yuan [my note: 400 yuan= under $50].
There is also some good information on other issues that plague Asia in regards to human rights.

The Plight of N. Korean rights in S. Korea

Lee Jong-seok has been going through a process (now, i need to admit that i am not a Korean politics scholar here) that seems to resemble our congressional approval of appointed officials. Lee was grilled, understandably due to a seemingly small yet important fact concerning his education:
The 48-year-old has an academic background linked to controversial figures such as Professors Song Du-yul and Kang Jeong-koo, both of whom created a stir with their allegedly pro-North Korean arguments and are heartily disliked by the conservatives.
Unfortunately, no matter whether he is fully a Kang Jeong-koo disciple or not, Lee has already shown his hand in regards to N. Korean human rights:
"But in terms of our North Korea policy of peace and stability on the Korean peninsula, it is my judgment that publicly demanding an improvement in human rights conditions cannot come before pursuing a peace policy," he said.

This wasn't the lowest point for NKHR this week. A musical directed by a defector that showcases the hardships of prison camp life has been. The piece, dubbed "Yudok Story" has received official pressure because of the blunt way it confronts the reality of the NK prison camp system. Over half the funding has been cut in an attempt to strangle the production. This is, unfortunately, par for the course. Our [LiNK] office has often pointed to the S. Korean government's pressure on NKHR groups as a specifically discouraging part of Uri Dang policy. With that said, one can imagine that the last thing one the list (who am i kidding, it wasn't even on the list) for these officials visiting Pyongyang was human rights. *sigh*

The New Revolution?

The single most interesting piece of news this week is perhaps the most vague and unclear and thus the most fun to speculate about. OFK has more on this.

The story broke a few days ago that clashes with border guards occured at multiple points along the NK-China border:
According to North Korean sources, on the night of January 28, a border guard in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, spotted several men crossing the Duman River from Kaishantun, China, and tried to arrest them. However, there was a scuffle between the border guard and the unidentified men, ending in the death of the guard who was stabbed 38 times.
My first thought was that 38 times seems an awful lot of stabs. What makes this interesting is that, though there are often incidents involving NK guards crossing over and causing trouble in China, nothing on the NK side has ever happened.
In the past, there have been cases of armed North Korean soldiers crossing the border into China and engaging in robbery...
...North Korean sources say that North Korean authorities consider this the work of a dissident organization composed mainly of defectors who are emulating the June 1937 Battle of Bocheonbo.
My first thought was that this had something to do with a group of soldier defectors who declared their own war on Kim Jong Il. It seems, from OFK's report that this is unlikely, but so little is known about this that anything goes. Keep your eyes peeled.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Supernotes Scandal Heats Up

Sanctioning of Banco Delta, the hub of North Korean money laundering activities, has continued with little end in sight as the US continues to hold a hard line against NK's criminal actions. The Korea Exchange Bank, whose largest shareholder is an American corporation, broke off all dealings with Banco Delta in an effort to protect the banks investments. The pressure on BD has rendered it obsolete and the US is already warning NK about continuing their activities:
North Korea may be looking for banks to help it launder money and the United States is ready to take action if this happens, a senior U.S. Treasury Department official said Friday.
Shockingly, in an action contrary to all the signals that the S. Korean administration has been sending out, South Korean Ambassador to the US Lee Tae Sik criticized N Korea's actions:
"Such illicit activities are not acceptable," Lee said in a speech yesterday at a luncheon organized by the Korea Economic Institute in Washington. The North Koreans "should make their hands clean on this matter by unequivocally turning away from the illicit behavior once and for all."
Lee's comment is gutsy as it doesn't reflect recent South Korea policy on this issue. In fact, it seems that S. Korea is coming down with a political multiple personality disorder.

North Korea did not let this all pass by without responding. NK fired off one of the strangest salvos I've seen in a while by attacking US foreign policy. NK not only claimed that the US was a major cause of nuclear proliferation around the world, but apparently the US is planning to attack China as well. Though these don't seem the most pertinent of attacks (in the case of China it is demonstrably false), they are not without reason. When taken in conjunction with recent attempts by NK to solicit Japanese help to convince the US to drop the sanctions, it becomes apparent that this is more an issue of desperate political jockying. And why? It is probably a safe bet that NK is trying to gain any foothold they can before talks with the US later this month. As of now, things have not been all too comfortable for NK on this issue. This, of course, may say something about firm negotiations with NK. just maybe.

Worth a Moment of Your Time

Here is a round up of articles that i won't fit in but are worth a gander:

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Reform and the Reformers

Though not the first time that Kim Jong Il has been to the idustrial mechas of China, this trip is becoming especially interesting, at least for the pundits and news sources. While there are some who think that this is just the same old, same old or that the reforms that China experienced might not even be a possibility for N. Korea, there are those who see a shadow of turning in the old dictators swagger. I would normally trust OFK on this call, but this seems to be a bit different. NK's political situation is perhaps as tenous as it has ever been and then there is this bit of new information:
The return of Jang Song Taek to North Korea's ruling hierarchy indicates the reclusive nation will push for further economic cooperation with South Korea, officials and analysts in Seoul say.
Jang, once a symbol of North Korea's reforms, will be given the job of reviving the country's moribund economy, they say.
Now while I don't echo the enthusiasm or certainty expressed in the article, I do agree that this represents, as the IHT so aptly put it, a Rubicon for KJI, and one that, if crossed, will open up a very interesting chapter for the entire East Asian region - and, hopefully, for human rights.

NK on the World Stage

It isn't as if North Korea's position on the world stage has ever been all that tenable, but it seems that things are slipping swiftly into unchartered and ever more menacing realms. For instance, that a nation's big international relations news is progress on negotiations with Burma for the strengthening of ties. Birds of a feather?

Similarly, it isn't always the best move to get caught with Iranian envoys who are in the nuclear weapon hotseat. It seems that N. Korea has gotten it down and nailed both wrong place and wrong time. NK has a history of selling this stuff and the US will likely not respond favorably if NK decides selling nuclear technology to Iran is a good idea:
The United States is also mounting a diplomatic offensive to get the message across, through China and South Korea, that a transfer of plutonium would cross a political red line.

And in the Alliance, things are still very twilight zone-esque as Japan confirms that they won't be sending aid into the North whereas Kim Dae Jung will be sending himself...only God knows why. Ok, that was cynical of me, but it is just like Governor Richardson going to NK because he thinks he can do what the world governments can't. Because being in New Mexico puts you on the pulse of NK issues.

Between the growing pressure from the six-party talks nations to stop committing international crimes and the potential for further political conflict from NK involvement in the growing tension over Iran's nuclear program, the possibility for volatility is rather high in my estimation.


Some intersting articles spanning some varied, yet interesting topics.

Money Matters

The development of the "Super Notes" scandal has continued to develop as the countries involved in the Six-party talks try to mend fences enough to get all sides back to the table. It seems that even North Korea is sensing the resolve of the US to stick to their guns on sanctions and have hinted that they might be willing to stop committing international crimes.
Hill said the North Koreans "indicated they would be prepared to subscribe to international norms with respect to money laundering and would want to cooperate internationally on these issues."
Hill, who has tried to convince Pyongyang the crackdown is a law enforcement matter unrelated to the six-party talks, refused to provide more details or say if the North's comments were a hopeful sign. We're not looking here for words. We're more interested in actions. We'd like to see this (illicit) activity cease," he said.

This admission is timely as the US is not only failing to back down (causing much official whinning in Cheong Wa Dae) but they are also ready to racthet up the pressure on the NK economy.

On top of this, there have been the recent admissions on the parts of Japan, China, and (albeit vaguely) S. Korea that the problem is substantial. Japan is even bringing the issue to the table in their upcoming bilateral talks in Beijing. I feel this could be a crucial turning point if the interantional community can see that drawing the line can actually work. This may change the way the International community (not including the Roh administration) addresses issues in N. Korea.