History Gets Whacked by Lazy Time Magazine Stenography on North Korean “Soprano State”...
...But Lawrence Wilkerson Provides a Much Needed Corrective
With the shutdown of the reactor at Yongbyon, the Six Party agreement to denuclearize North Korea has lumbered into its next stage.
That means it’s time for all the hardliners who eagerly predicted the collapse of the agreement (and, indeed, may have worked actively to sabotage it by hindering the unfreezing of the North Korean accounts at Banco Delta Asia in Macau) to avoid unwelcome comparisons between their own counterproductive measures and the current success of the engagement policy.
Facts must be spun, failure must be obfuscated, reputations must be burnished and, I suppose, think tank sinecures must be defended until indifference and fading memory permit these indefatigable and unchastened screwups to return to positions of power within the U.S. foreign policy bureaucracy.
So it looks like it’s time once again for a complacent press will provide political cover to anxious Beltway apparatchiks in return for access to a selective slice of the inside story...
...one that glosses over a crucial two year period of failure—2005 and 2006—during which North Korea policy was under the undisputed control of the hardliners.
Case in point: Time Magazine’s expose of Kim Jung Il, “The Tony Soprano of North Korea.”
The article draws on assertions by David Asher, currently at the Heritage Foundation, who worked as a senior advisor in the State Department until mid-2005.
Mr. Asher was the driving force behind the hardliners’ aggressive implementation of the Illegal Activities Initiative (IAI). The IAI focused the enforcement actions of various U.S. departments on alleged illegal activities by North Korea, including cigarette counterfeiting, the meth trade, Supernote counterfeiting, money laundering and trade in protected species.
Mr. Asher’s twin legacies will probably be 1) using the IAI to instigate the Patriot Act Section 311 investigation of Banco Delta Asia in Macau that turned into an embarrassing fiasco and 2) his notorious but publicly unsupported statement that the investigation was a part of a planned effort to intimidate China by “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys”.
Time’s authors, Bill Powell and Adam Zagorin, could have grilled Mr. Asher about his role in the Bush administration’s hardline North Korean diplomacy in 2005/2006, which ended in North Korea’s detonation of its first atomic bomb, the failure to create an effective regional coalition to support Washington’s policy of confrontation against Pyongyang, the departure of the key hardline architects, Bolton, Joseph, et. al., and the laborious dismantling (and discrediting) of the ineffectual U.S.-led financial blockade that failed to bring Kim Jung Il to his knees.
Too bad they didn’t.
The story of how the hardliners drove America’s North Korea policy into a ditch is an interesting and important one, and it isn’t too hard to dig out.
Recently, I had the pleasure of corresponding with Lawrence Wilkerson, Secretary of State Colin Powell’s Chief of Staff during the first George W. Bush administration.
My attention had been drawn to Mr. Wilkerson by the contrast between his perspective on the IAI and a recent claim of Mr. Asher’s.
Lawrence Wilkerson, as reported in the Wall Street Journal in 2005, had this to say about the IAI:
Larry Wilkerson, who was former Secretary of State Colin Powell's chief of staff, said in an interview that the effort -- which officials named the Illicit Activities Initiative -- was launched to augment, rather than undercut, diplomacy.
In Congressional testimony in 2007, David Asher spoke of his resistance to the U.S. concession on Banco Delta Asia that ended the standoff concerning the frozen North Korean funds, and provided his characterization of the IAI::
“We designed this initiative with the goal of countering these [illicit] activities themselves...not necessarily supporting the Six Party talks.”
Well, which was it? Was the IAI designed for diplomacy...or something else?
Mr. Wilkerson, who, one might say, was present at the creation, commented to China Matters:
[The North Korea Working Group] was the most successful interagency group of the first Bush administration. It had members from every element of the federal bureaucracy. We forged a consensus, a way ahead, a plan of attack...
The primary reason of the Illicit Activities Initiative was to give us a tool for negotiating the Six Party agreement. That tool would be the "stick" with which we would attempt to make the DPRK negotiators more receptive to our desires with regard to their nuclear and missile programs, as well as their illicit activities. ...
David Asher liked to assume there was a real crimefighter I’m going to get you [component to the IAI]. [But it was always meant to be] orchestrated with astute diplomacy.
... I believe that once we had gone, John Bolton and others put the IAI to use as a stand-alone policy to attempt to force regime change in Pyongyang by drying up the money with which Kim Jong-il essentially kept his generals happy.
As to whether getting the North Koreans to walk out of the Six Party talks was part of the original, devilishly clever scheme for the Illicit Activities Initiative, I had this exchange with Mr. Wilkerson:
Was the BDA investigation part of the plan? Was the North Korean walkout in 2005 a contingency you had planned for?
No. [In President Bush’s second term] other people, John Bolton, Bob Joseph took away the dual track. They lusted after it, got ahold of it [the IAI], went whole hog [to use it to destabilize North Korea ].
That wasn’t so hard, was it?
In contrast to Mr. Asher’s assertion, Mr. Wilkerson states that the Illicit Activities Initiative was designed to complement American diplomacy in the Six Party talks.
So it might be enlightening for Mr. Asher to explain how the Illicit Activities Initiative was repurposed at the beginning of President Bush’s second term as an acceptable substitute for Six Party diplomacy...
...so that North Korea walked out of the Six Party talks, detonated a bomb, and demanded a humiliating retreat by the United States on the signature action of the Illicit Activities Initiative—the action against BDA...
...so that the talks could resume in early 2007 under China’s aegis at essentially the same point we were at in early 2005...
...or during the Clinton administration for that matter...
...except of course that North Korea now has the atomic bomb...
...and enough plutonium stockpiled to make several more.
Hardly a glowing endorsement for the decision to pursue the Illicit Activities Initiative independently of (and seemingly at the expense of) Six Party diplomacy
I did request a comment from Mr. Asher, but he didn’t respond.
Maybe Time had the same problem.
Of course, now that the hardliner policy failed with a thud (or the crump of an underground nuclear test), it seems to be in Mr. Asher’s interest to downplay the marked discontinuity in North Korea policy during the first two years of President Bush’s second term, as well as the role Mr. Asher played in that redirection.
Instead, Time got another retelling of Mr. Asher’s increasingly shopworn tales concerning Royal Charm and Smoking Dragon stings against alleged illicit North Korean activity, albeit with some of that patented Time factchecking.
That would seem to be the point, as far as Mr. Asher is concerned: keeping the focus on continued North Korean perfidy instead of the spasm of hardliner ineptitude that gave North Korea the bomb and left America playing second fiddle to China in North Asia.
There is some news, albeit of a negative sort, buried deep in the end of the article--the relative softpedaling of North Korean counterfeiting allegations.
According to U.S. and South Korean intelligence reports, the North has been producing the counterfeit bills at least since 1994. The South Korean intelligence service two years ago said it could confirm production only until 1998, but at least twice in recent years, claim U.S. and South Korean sources, the U.S. has presented the South Korean government with supernotes said to have been produced in 2001 and 2003.
A 2006 State Department estimate puts the amount of counterfeit currency in circulation at $45 million to $48 million. Estimate is the key word. Of all the illicit businesses from which North Korea profits, counterfeiting is the one about which outsiders know the least. U.S. officials say they don't believe the North Koreans produced the equipment to print such high-quality counterfeit bills. If that's the case, where did they get it from? No U.S. agency interviewed for this story, including Treasury, State and the Secret Service, could say. U.S. sources also say they do not know where in North Korea the notes are produced.
It does seem likely, however, that Kim's government is running the scam. [emphasis added]
Pretty weak beer, especially when compared to the prior allegations of extensive Supernote counterfeiting by North Korea that formed the central justification for the global financial campaign orchestrated against North Korea in 2005 and 2006 by the hardliners.
Heritage Foundation researcher Balbina Hwang—who currently occupies Mr. Asher’s advisor slot at the State Department—asserted that North Korea annually produced hundreds of millions of dollars worth of Supernotes.
Supernote counterfeiting was deemed an act of economic warfare, an act that Ed Royce (Rep., California, and the voice of the hardliners on the House Foreign Affairs Committee) darkly opined would justify the financial implosion of the Pyongyong regime by the United States.
In 2006, David Asher characterized North Korea’s Supernote involvement as follows :
The US Secret Service has been investigating the circulation of the “supernote” counterfeit dollars since 1989. Last year it charged that the counterfeit US notes were “manufactured in, and under auspices of the government of, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (“North Korea”). Individuals, including North Korean nationals acting as ostensible government officials, engaged in the worldwide transportation, delivery, and sale of quantities of Supernotes.” As the Secret Service has now revealed, the Federal Reserve Bank has come into the possession of roughly $48 million of these notes in the last fifteen years. Some argue that this shows that counterfeiting is just a drop in the bucket. Let me argue against this view.
To be fair, it wasn’t just David Asher.
According to Mr. Wilkerson, when he was at State before 2005 the briefings were pretty categorical:
I sat in meetings with the Treasury and Secret Service and they essentially convinced me [that North Korea was producing Supernotes inside North Korea and trafficking in them].
Now he adds a self-deprecating verbal shrug:
But I thought there were WMDs inside Iraq too.
Maybe the reporting of McClatchy and the investigations of Karl Bender concerning the immense technical and logistical hurdles Pyongyang would have had to overcome—and the paucity of evidence for any significant operation--are persuading the administration to back away from the North Korean Supernote allegations.
Or maybe, with the North Korean crisis cooling off, the government decided simply to stop yanking our chain about Kim Jung Il’s private Supernote factory, and allow the location of the purported facility to continue its hegira to our next designated boogie man (prior to North Korea, the United States had cited Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley a.k.a. Hezbollah, and then Iran as sources for the insidious notes).
In any event, the shift from a casus belli involving hundreds of millions of dollars in Supernotes produced inside North Korea to Time’s “we don’t know where or how much or how they do it or if they’re still even making them” is quite a step back.
While Mr. Powell and Mr. Zagorin missed the significance of the apparent retreat on the Supernote story, they also managed to add a few errors to their reporting about this hot-button issue:
a) Contra their statement quoted above, “estimate” is not the “key word” in describing the $45-$48 million number for circulating counterfeit currency; the key word is “confidence”.
Mr. Asher has energetically hyped the possibility of an enormous undetected North Korean Supernote menace by dismissing Treasury’s data on counterfeits as a mere “estimate”.
However, the Treasury Department has studied the international traffic in counterfeit U.S. currency exhaustively in a multi-year effort by the Federal Reserve Board involving visits to dozens of countries and is confident—with considerably more authority than Mr. Asher can muster-- that there is no significant reservoir of undetected counterfeit notes of any kind, including Supernotes.
b) The total of $45--$48 million in circulation is all counterfeit currency, not just Supernotes.
c) Only $45 million in Supernotes has been seized in the last fifteen years, as Asher himself says in his other statement. That’s an average of $3 million a year (for perspective, about $500 billion in US currency is in circulation worldwide).
Humph. I’ll bet Mr. Luce only needed one reporter to get it all wrong, back in the day.
Extensive Supernote counterfeiting was an important allegation not only because of the provocative and symbolic character of the outrage against America’s currency.
It was the only case in which the United States could claim to be the primary injured party and assert the right to lead a global action against North Korea outside the frustratingly incremental, multi-lateral Six Party and UN processes reserved for the nuclear, WMD, and missile issues.
The other major examples of alleged North Korean illicit activities did not have the United States as their primary target—they were concerns for China and Japan.
In both these cases, even with Japan’s highly confrontational stance toward North Korea, the injured parties did not see fit to characterize the North Korean activity as a casus belli that could not be handled by local and international law enforcement.
If the North Koreans are churning out huge quantities of counterfeit cigarettes, the main destination would be China, where an astounding percentage--over 90%--of imported cigarettes on the market are illicit—either smuggled or counterfeit.
If North Korean factories were making meth, the primary market would be Japan.
According to reports I’ve seen, meth is tolerated in Japan, presumably because it encourages the get-up-and-go-and-go-and-go-go-go ethos that is supposed to make Japanese society tick, and the yakuza’s drug trafficking is tolerated as long as it sticks to meth and stays away from cocaine and opiates. As a result, the market is served by immense illegal factories in the Philippines, Taiwan, and/or whatever locale offers the best combination of access to ephedrine, lax enforcement, and corruption.
The business is run by sophisticated, flexible, and internationalized criminal cartels whose entrepreneurial acumen is one of the true faces of 21st century globalism.
Which brings me to a gripe about the soundbite du jour on North Korea, “the Soprano State.”
David Asher et. al. probably found this formulation very useful, as the concept of a North Korean state fundamentally criminal in its nature justified an attack against any and all North Korean activities without the need to build a persuasive case in each and every instance.
I wouldn’t be surprised if the North Korean government, at a high level, countenances some dirty dealing. But I don’t think they’re the Sopranos; I think they’re the Gang Who Couldn’t Shoot Straight, relatively ineffectual amateur criminals stuck in the low-profit links of the Asian criminal supply chain.
Does anybody think the North Korean bureaucrats and generals can outhustle and outmuscle the fearsome Chinese triads who, if one might recall, were the designated Asian menace back in the 1990s?
I believe North Korea’s fundamental identity is that of a sclerotic dictatorship trying to cling to power and revive its moribund economy in an environment of overt US and Japanese hostility and Chinese malign indifference. Its willingness to engage in criminal activity is moderated by the requirements of its diplomacy and the need to achieve some sort of modus vivendi with the West that will allow Pyongyang to share in the immense river of trade and investment cash flowing through North Asia via South Korea, Europe, and China today.
Which means I believe this piece of analysis in the Time article is just plain wrong:
But even if Pyongyang agrees to disarm, there's little reason to believe that the regime will abandon its nefarious business dealings. By keeping Kim's top military and security officials happy, such lucrative enterprises help the dictator maintain his grip on power and resist pressure to open up the North's broken, Stalinist economy. [emphasis added]
Fact is, Kim Jung Il is trying to strengthen his regime by a controlled opening to the West—as the Chinese did in the 1980s—through special economic development zones and preferential policies to attract foreign investment.
Kim would love to preside over a one-party post-socialist business-friendly state that could claim US appreciation and support for acting as a counterweight to China in Asia.
Prospects for a Nixon-goes-to-China rapprochement have, of course, been pretty dim during the Bush administration.
The US campaign to block North Korea’s foreign trade and investment-related initiatives—and prevent Kim from prolonging his rule by presiding over a more prosperous and globalized North Korean economy—would make for an interesting story by itself.
The story would include items like our serial harassment of the Daedong Credit Bank—the foreign-owned North Korea bank meant to promote foreign investment in the Hermit Kingdom, that happened to account for 25% of the money tied up in Banco Delta Asia—and efforts to discourage participation in the Kaesong Industrial Park, North Korea’s flagship export processing zone catering to foreign manufacturers.
But I guess it’s too complicated.
The simple narrative of North Korea as a “Soprano State” is comforting, because it allows us to ignore or disdain the forces acting against American diplomacy in the region.
That, of course, is the problem.
It’s reckless and dangerous to simplify the North Korean issue to that of a repulsive toad king that the world would gladly spit out of its mouth, if only it got a strong enough slap on the back from the United States.
That kind of mindset makes it too easy for lazy and cynical bureaucrats to promote badly-conceived policies and then excuse and obscure their own failures by exploiting the genuine but also carefully cultivated abhorrence that America feels for Kim Jung Il.
Looking at the current state of play on the Korean peninsula, we should be asking:
Was it worth it to abandon nuclear diplomacy for two years to pursue provocative but relatively insignificant allegations of North Korean wrongdoing in a futile effort to get Kim Jung Il to dance to our tune?
In other words, was pursuing the Illicit Activities Initiative more important than supporting the Six Party talks, as Mr. Asher seems to think?
Now, with North Korea possessing the bomb, and lined up with China, Russia, and South Korea in a position of advantage in North Asia, the answer seems obvious.
I just wish Time had asked the question.