Trump administration weighing broad sanctions on North Korea

The Trump administration is considering sweeping sanctions aimed at cutting North Korea off from the global financial system as part of a broad review of measures to counter Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threat, a senior U.S. official said.

The sanctions would be part of a multi-pronged approach of increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially on Chinese banks and firms that do the most business with North Korea – plus beefed-up defenses by the United States and its South Korean and Japanese allies, according to the administration official familiar with the deliberations.

While the long-standing option of pre-emptive military strikes against North Korea is not off the table – as reflected by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s warning to Pyongyang during his Asia tour last week – the new administration is giving priority for now to less-risky options.

The policy recommendations being assembled are expected to reach the president’s desk within weeks, possibly before a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in early April, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. North Korea is expected to top the agenda at that meeting.

The objective of the U.S. move being considered would be to tighten the screws in the same way that the widening of sanctions – to encompass foreign firms dealing with Iran – was used to pressure Tehran to open negotiations with the West on its suspected nuclear weapons program. That effort ultimately led to a 2015 deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

 [Read full Reuters article]

Three US administrations have failed to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions

Three US administrations spanning 24 years — Clinton, Bush 43 and Obama — have failed to deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

All of North Korea’s programs are leading to one thing: the ability to hit Los Angeles or another large U.S. city with a nuclear first strike. North Korea has enough highly enriched uranium or plutonium for about 10 warheads. Its miniaturization and weaponization technology is well-advanced. Its missile tests have moved from short range to intermediate range, and are now on the brink of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Once a warhead is mounted on an ICBM, Los Angeles is in imminent danger.

North Korea is about three–four years away from this goal.

The Trump administration is hoping that war in not necessary and that it can steer the North Koreans toward acceptable behavior through the use of financial sanctions. The U.S. pursued this policy with some success during both the Clinton and Bush 43 administrations, but both presidents backed off from sanctions in exchange for vague promises from North Korea that were never honored in full. The Obama administration did almost nothing to deter North Korea and essentially ignored the issue for eight years in order to appease China. Now the Trump administration is playing the sanctions card again.

North Korean banks have been banned from the global payments system called SWIFT. This is a powerful move, but North Korea can work around it. It can use Russian and Chinese banks to make international payments on its behalf without disclosing the name of the real beneficiary to SWIFT.

The solution to this is for the U.S. to impose sanctions on Chinese and Russian banks doing business in the U.S. that facilitate North Korean payments. That’s an effective form of sanction, but it risks escalating tensions with Russia and China. Trump may move in that direction anyway.

[Jim Rickards]

North Korean defector floats leaflets with Kim Jong Nam news

A North Korean defector is packing balloons with information about Kim Jong Nam’s death and floating them north from South Korea.

Park Sang-hak, who says he defected in 1993 after picking up a leaflet sent from South Korea, told CNN he wants to show ordinary North Koreans the true nature of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Nam was the eldest half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Malaysian authorities allege North Korean agents killed Kim Jong Nam by wiping the highly toxic VX nerve agent on his face at an airport in Kuala Lumpur on February 13.

“Even South Koreans were shocked to hear the news of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination,” Park said. “Can you imagine how North Koreans will react?”

News of the killing has likely gone unreported in North Korea, where the press is tightly controlled by the government.

Park hopes the leaflets, SD cards and USB drives will offer people inside North Korea a glimpse of the outside world, including Kim Jong Nam’s death.

Pyongyang considers it a hostile act and tells its citizens the leaflets are South Korean propaganda, defectors say.

[CNN]

Chilling challenge faced by female North Korean defectors in China

“In China, tens of thousands of North Korean women are hiding and living in fear of capture by the Chinese authorities,” said Lee So-yeon, a former soldier who fled her country in 2008 and is now a leading activist in South Korea.

Many of the women, she said, are sold to men in China with prices ranging from US$4,000 for women in their 20s, to US$2,000 for those in their 40s.

“The greatest fear for women who are forced to leave is deportation to North Korea,” she said. Those who are caught by the Chinese authorities and sent back face the prospect of punishment meted out in prison camps, correctional training centers or labor training camps.

Life is especially harsh for women who have become pregnant by Chinese men, with some of them facing execution, she said.

Lim Hye-jin left her country in 1998 during the famine crisis. Once she crossed into China with a broker she was forcibly married to his brother, before becoming pregnant and was later rounded up by Chinese officials while working at a market. After repatriation she escaped back into China, but was brought back to the North once again. Eventually, she made a third escape and arrived in South Korea in 2002, but without her daughter.

[South China Morning Post]

North Korea contributes to Doomsday Clock being reset to 2½ minutes to midnight

The Doomsday Clock was created in a publication called the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 and was intended as a stark graphical representation of how close the planet Earth is to nuclear annihilation. The minute hand shows the relative time remaining for life on Earth. This is measured in “minutes to midnight.” The minute hand is moved once per year.

At the start of the Cold War (1947), the clock was set at seven minutes to midnight. In 1991, just after the end of the Cold War, the clock showed 17 minutes to midnight.

This year the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists issued a shocking announcement that The Doomsday Clock was moved forward to 2½ minutes to midnight, the closest to disaster the clock has been since 1953. (At that time, it was set at two minutes to midnight due to a U.S. decision to pursue the hydrogen bomb.)

[As part of the reason] for moving the Doomsday Clock forward to “two and a half minutes to midnight,” The Bulletin cited the North Korean situation.

North Korea has made great strides in short-range and intermediate-range missiles, and is working toward an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), that could reach Los Angeles and much of the rest of the United States from their territory. North Korea also has a store of plutonium and highly-enriched uranium (HEU) that can be converted into nuclear weapons. It has made progress in the miniaturization and ruggedization of those weapons so they can be converted to warheads and placed on the missiles. The only remaining element of the nightmare scenario is intent.

UN sanctions disrupting humanitarian aid to North Korea

International sanctions on North Korea are taking a serious toll on humanitarian aid activities, according to the latest United Nations report. The report was put together by five U.N. agencies, seven international non-governmental organizations and the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation.

The report said “chronic food insecurity, early childhood malnutrition and nutrition insecurity” continue to be widespread in the North, which it noted ranked 98th out of 118 countries in the 2016 Global Hunger Index. More than 10 million people — or about 41 percent of the North Korean population — are undernourished, it said.

The report also noted sanctions are making it harder to conduct aid activities. In particular, it said the “regular disruption” of banking channels since 2013 has made it difficult or impossible to transfer funds into the country. It also cited the additional requirements for licenses and the time it takes to determine what is or is not a potential sanctions’ violation as the cause of considerable delays that have forced agencies to “reprioritize” their aid activities.

It said the sanctions also have the psychological effect of making donors reluctant to provide funds for projects in the North.

The report, which was released online this week, noted that despite the need for better information and sufficient access to certain areas of the country, aid agencies operating in North Korea believe monitoring mechanisms are sufficient to ensure aid does indeed go to those who need it.

[AP]

UN Human Rights Council opens door to prosecuting North Korea

The United Nations Human Rights Council has brought North Korea another step closer to accountability for human rights crimes, Human Rights Watch said Friday. A resolution, passed without a vote on March 24, 2017, strengthens the UN’s work to assess and develop strategies to prosecute grave violations in North Korea.

The resolution provides for strengthening the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Seoul by including international criminal justice experts. The experts will be able to develop plans for the eventual prosecution of North Korean leaders and officials responsible for human rights crimes.

“The Human Rights Council spoke with one voice today by condemning North Korea’s horrific rights abuses and supporting efforts to bring leading officials in Pyongyang to account,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “The overwhelming support for this resolution shows the resounding commitment of the international community to ensure that Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s rights-abusing authorities don’t escape justice.”

Tomás Ojea Quintana, the special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), underlined in his latest report to the council in February that the “investigation and prosecution of serious crimes are indispensable, as are measures to ensure the right of victims and societies to know the truth about violations, the right of victims to reparations, and guarantees of non-recurrence of violations.”

“The Human Rights Council demonstrated with its new resolution what can be achieved when member countries stand behind their promises to hold to account recalcitrant, rights-violating governments,” Fisher said. “This not only brings North Koreans one step closer to justice for human rights crimes they have suffered, but should also make North Korean government officials think twice before inflicting more abuse.”

[Human Rights Watch]

UN to step up against North Korean human rights abuses

The U.N. agreed to ramp up its investigations on crimes against humanity committed by North Korea for use in future prosecutions on Friday, on the final day of a four week session.

The U.N. office in Seoul currently employs six people to interview defectors about human rights abuses, as some 1,400 North Korean defectors arrive each year into South Korea, mainly via China, Reuters reported.

In 2014, Michael Kirby, Chairman of the U.N. Commission on North Korea said : “What we have seen and heard so far—the accuracy, the details and the shocking personal testimony—will beyond a doubt require follow-up measures by the world community, as well as consequences for those responsible on the part of the DPRK”.

In 2014, the International Society for Human Rights, (ISHR), stated that North Korea’s crimes are “without parallel” in the contemporary world, documenting examples of widespread torture recorded in North Korea, with orders for brutality often coming from the most senior members of society.

However, North Korea “ categorically and totally rejects” the resolution adopted by the U.N. Human Rights Council, responding in a statement on KCNA—North Korea’s national news agency.

John Fisher, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch said : “The overwhelming support for this resolution shows the resounding commitment of the international community to ensure that Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s rights-abusing authorities don’t escape justice.”

[Newsweek]

Understanding and engaging with North Koreans

Understanding what it means to be North Korean is crucial to answering the broader questions of state behavior. We have all heard the testimonies of North Korean defectors about the idea of juche and the personality cult of the Kim “dynasty,” but North Korea is not just its leaders, but also its people. Without an understanding of the people, dialogue with the state alone is set to make little progress.

While the North Korean state apparatus is all too aware of, and actively planning their next move against, Western pronouncements … we must not forget the people of the DPRK. They, like Kim Jong Un, are also far from naïve. Instead, they can be highly calculating, aware that they are not living in the “socialist paradise on Earth,” and, especially among the younger generation of middle-class Pyongyangers, possess a burning desire to develop their own careers, enterprises, and curiosity with the world outside the DPRK.

The 1990s saw the slow erosion of state ideological control. What was once an essential “social norm” of ideological obedience to the state became viewed as merely a “social necessity” by which to conform in public, and was clear evidence of the power of nunchi in individuals’ desires to be the masters of their own lives. VCRs and DVDs became the early fulcrums for questioning the extant state ideology. North Koreans could also obtain short-wave radios, and, instead of tuning to the usual state broadcast, could tune to news emanating from China and south of the 38th parallel. It was such banal yet pivotal moments that opened the minds of individuals living under the confines of the Kim regime to the outside world, a world that was not as poverty-stricken, nor abusive, as they were once told.

[Even] North Korean defectors still view the DPRK as their “homeland.” For many, Kim Il-sung remains the “Father of the Nation,” yet defection became the only route for a better future. A survey by Chosun Ilbo in 2014 discovered that amongst the North Korean defector community, 80 percent viewed Kim Il-sung favorably, in contrast to 19.5 percent for Kim Jong-Il, and a mere 9 percent for Kim Jong-un. This stark contrast between the “Father of the Nation” and the younger Kim in power today … shows that the DPRK is not a static country, the Kims are not three incarnations of one – be it one ideology, one mindset, or one ruling mechanism.

[Excerpts of a Diplomat article by Edward Howell, Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Oxford]

What would war between the US and North Korea mean?

The US has nearly 80,000 military personnel in South Korea and Japan, as well as more war-fighting units in Guam. The US 7th Fleet patrols the region, armed with tactical nuclear weapons. US nukes are also based in South Korea and Guam. Additionally, South Korea has a formidable, 600,000-man army equipped with state of the art weapons.

North Korea’s one million-man armed force is large, but obsolescent. Its great strength in heavy artillery partly compensates for its totally obsolete, 1960’s vintage air force. Key combat elements of the DPRK army are dug deep into the rocky hills just north of the DMZ, with thousands of heavy North Korean guns facing south. In the event of war, the North claims it will destroy South Korea’s capitol, Seoul, that is only 30km away and has 20 million residents.

US estimates of war in Korea, made a decade ago, suggest America would incur 250,000 casualties in a war that would cost one million Korean deaths. That’s why the US has shied away from direct attack on North Korea.

The US would certainly be tempted to use tactical nuclear weapons against North Korean troops and guns deeply dug into the mountainous terrain. Without them, air power, America’s usual trump card, would lose much of its destructive potential.

US war plans call for amphibious landings along North Korea’s long, vulnerable coastline. This threat forces the North to deploy large numbers of regular army and militia troops on both coasts. North Korea’s air force and little navy would be vaporized on the first day of hostilities. But it is likely that the DPRK would be able to fire a score or more of medium-ranged missiles at Japan.

If the war goes nuclear, Japan looks almost certain to suffer nuclear attack, along with Guam. Tokyo and Osaka are prime targets.

North Korean forces might be able to push south to Seoul, but likely no further in the face of fierce attacks by US and South Korean air power operating from bases further south. The North’s powerful commando force of some 100,000 troops would attack key South Korean targets, including its vital air bases shared with the US. Such raids would be highly disruptive but not decisive unless the DPRK used chemical and/or biological weapons to shut down South Korea’s air bases and its ports at Busan and Inchon.

The US and South Korea could certainly win such a war but it would be very bloody and expensive. There would be the threat of Chinese military intervention if it appeared the US was about to occupy North Korea. Russia is also right next door.

[Excerpts of article by Eric Margolis]