Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Denise Woo Follow-Up

Today’s LA Times (Greg Krikorian, Ex-FBI agent is sentenced in plea agreement, LA Times print edition, Oct. 31, 2006) reports that Denise Woo was sentenced to probation and a $1000 fine as part of the plea bargain that brought an end to the felony case the U.S. government had tried to make against her.

Denise Woo was an FBI agent instructed to help make a case against a family friend, Jeffrey Wang, who happened to be innocent. She eventually resisted, tried to convince the FBI to drop the case, and—assuming that the plea bargain represents her actions accurately—finally tipped off Wang that he was being victimized by a confidential informant.

The FBI tried to convict her on felony charges, but the case apparently foundered on the established record of mismanagement and malfeasance in the FBI Chinese counter-intelligence squad in LA while headed by James J. Smith.

The defense probably would have called on Smith to testify—who had been fired from the FBI for his affair with one of his operatives, Katrina Leung, who was stealing documents from his briefcase—in order to make a case for the dysfunctional and unprofessional character of his operation.

The FBI, unwilling to expose either its procedures or problems, punted on the case and agreed to let Woo plead down to a non-felony offense.

So Denise Woo has her life back—kinda—after a seven year ordeal.

Jeffrey Wang, who still works for a Defense Department contractor, stated:

“The government should be ashamed for its reprehensible treatment of me...and for prosecuting and ruining the life of Denise Woo, a person of great integrity, who stood up for an innocent man. Tragically, justice was not served in either of our cases.”

I think that the objective of US counterintelligence operations isn’t justice—it’s intimidation. Specifically, the threat of capricious government harassment serves as a disincentive for members of a target group to do anything, even if it’s legal, that might attract the unfavorable attention of the spooks.

Whether or not one believes that State of Fear Lite is necessary, effective, immoral, or whatever, the fact remains that cases brought under these conditions tend not to do very well in court.

There’s another problem.

When bending the law instead of upholding it becomes the guideline for police activity, the resulting partial immunity from legal rigor, the laws of evidence, and common decency encourage callousness, laziness, incompetence, and outright dishonesty.

Lives get ruined as a result of this moral and legal abdication.

Lives like Denise Woo’s.

I blogged on this case previously. The definitive piece on the case is the article The Deception of Denise Woo by Alison Frankel in The American Lawyer. Unfortunately, the piece does not appear to be on-line anymore.

I also wish to take this case to apologize for imputing that Woo’s attorney’s handed the story to Ms. Frankel on a silver platter. She rightly calls me for that baseless assertion in her comment to my original post.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Wikipedia--Now Made in China?

While researching my article on the Proliferation Security Initiative, I reviewed the Wikipedia article on the Yinhe incident, a less than glorious chapter in American WMD intelligence gathering and interdiction.

The article, written by a Chinese national, describes how in 1993 the United States suspected a Chinese container vessel, the Yinhe, of transporting chemical weapon precursors destined for Iran and insisted the vessel proceed to Dammam, Saudi Arabia, to be searched. Nothing was found—much to the chagrin of confront-China partisans in the United States.

The author has a difficult time maintaining a veneer of scholarly objectivity:

Although many American diplomats and CIA openly admitted that the incident was a mistake, many conservatives in the United States such as the Blue Team nonetheless attempted to fabricate outrageous excuses such as the Chinese submarine had met the Chinese ship somewhere in the trip and had secretly transfered the chemical weapons material the ship was carrying, without any intelligence support. When such racist accusation reached China, even the Chinese dissidents who were always critical to the Chinese regime was enraged, resulting in increased Chinese nationalism in response.

Memorably, he concludes:

On September 25, 1993, "Yinhe" successfully returned to Xingang, Tianjin. However, the perfect on-time schedule of the Chinese shipping company was permanently ruined by the incident.

As a similar example of misplaced indignation, I could only think of Homer Simpson’s objection to the 55 MPH speed limit: “Yes, lives will be saved. But millions will be late!”

To be fair, English is not the author’s first language, and he did a more nuanced job in the
article he did on the same subject on Chinese Wikipedia.

Interestingly, that version differs significantly in emphasis and, while describing the incident as an embarrassment for the United States, stated that “the incident is considered a defeat for Chinese diplomacy and the Chinese navy”.

In the English article, the author registers his disapproval of China’s accommodating response only in a relatively oblique manner:

The Chinese government, on the other hand, attempted to play down the issue by claiming that the racist accusation was not the official stand of the American government and did not represent the majority opinion in the United States.

I hadn’t been aware of the flurry of Chinese activity on Wikipedia entries in Chinese, let alone English, but in perusing the Chinese Wikipedia message board I found a message dated August 2006 exhorting editors to even greater Stakhanovite achievements in production.

Urging everybody to forward the mobilization order to five message boards, it urges every Wikipedia editor to come up with five new entries and states:


Currently Chinese Wikipedia has 90,000 registered users. If only 4000 people answer the mobilization order, by October 1 we will have added 20,000 entries, meaning that Chinese Wikipedia will quickly surpass Russian Wikipedia and break the 100,000 entry barrier...

With reference to this outburst of Wikipedia energy in China, it was interesting to read this entry on Ryan Petersen’s blog, Expreference today via Peking Duck (whose commenters confirmed that the ban has been lifted, apparently on an ISP basis, in various localities throughout China):

I thought I'd never see the day, but the Chinese censors have lifted the long-standing ban on Wikipedia! Maybe they finally realized that because anybody can edit Wikipedia, they can just delete the stuff they don't like anyways. And I assure you that the Chinese government can organize more people to edit and delete articles than the rest of the Wikipedia community combined! Now the battle is likely to turn the other way, as Wikipedia bans Chinese IP addresses from presenting the world with lies and half-truths about topics sensitive to the regime.

Watch out, Wikipedia!

Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Real War: John Bolton's Struggle with China over the Proliferation Security Initiative

Summary: The Proliferation Security Initiative is a multi-national anti-proliferation measure that broadly interprets anti-proliferation activities to include aggressive counter-proliferation activities up to and including rollback and, potentially, regime change. It is America’s preferred tool for applying pressure on North Korea, employing proliferation concerns to interdict sanctioned and illicit North Korean cargoes and assets and achieve disruption tantamount to an economic blockade. In recent years, the PSI’s primary architect, John Bolton, has attempted to make PSI activities a binding obligation on all members in case of U.N. sanctions, with the implication that the United States and its allies would have the freedom to intervene and conduct interdiction activities if certain member nations lacked the capability or enthusiasm to engage in these activities themselves. China abhors the PSI as an instrument of U.S. military unilateralism and has managed to exclude reference to it from all U.N. resolutions. However, this has not deterred the United States and its allies from executing an overt PSI response in the context of North Korean sanctions and demanding similar responses from UN member states. Particularly with respect to Iran, it will be interesting to see if China can still rely on its veto power over military action in the Security Council to protect its interests and allies, given America’s aggressive implementation of the PSI under the rubric of economic sanctions.

One of the most interesting and potentially significant actions in the North Korea nuclear crisis occurred last week.

Hong Kong officials boarded a North Korean freighter, possibly because it was suspected of carrying military equipment.

Here’s the Chosun Daily
version of events:

U.S. and Japan had been trailing the vessel, which left Nampo port in South Pyongan Province and was passing southward through the South China Sea. U.S. Broadcasters including CBS and CNN on Friday quoted intelligence officials as saying a North Korean vessel suspected of carrying weapons-related materials was being trailed.

The freighter arrived at Hong Kong port on Sunday evening, and Hong Kong authorities formally seized the vessel, the South China Morning Post said Tuesday. The 2,035 t Kang Nam I is a cargo carrier, but it arrived in Hong Kong with an empty load. Crew reportedly told authorities they were a simple cargo operation and planned to travel to Taiwan on Tuesday to pick up a load of scrap metal.

In their inspection of the vessel, Hong Kong authorities found 25 violations, 12 related to antiquated navigational charts and insufficient life equipment. But nothing related to weaponry or nuclear production was found.

The anxious world will be relieved to learn that America’s armed might was at the ready to confront the threat from this empty rustbucket:

As the Kang Nam I cruised into port in Hong Kong, the U.S. was preparing for a confrontation and dispatched the guided-missile frigate U.S.S. Gary to the scene.

Later reports, especially a detailed article by AFP, dismissed the seizure as routine, pointing out that Hong Kong had inspected 7 vessels and detained 9 prior to this incident.

For what it’s worth, the U.S. Consulate declared that the Gary was in Hong Kong on a routine port call and pooh-poohed the idea that it had been ready to steam into action against the 2000-ton Kang Nam, declaring "I can tell you that the USS Gary was not chasing any North Korean ships."

Nevertheless, the rumor mill had certainly been churning with the allegation that Christopher Hill had dropped the dime on the Kang Nam; also groundless, according to the consulate:

South Korea's JoongAng Ilbo newspaper quoted a source in Hong Kong as saying Assistant US Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who visited Hong Kong at the weekend, passed on intelligence about the ship and asked for it to be searched.

Mr Hill is the chief US envoy for North Korean affairs.

However, a US consulate spokesman said Mr Hill had been in town simply for "routine consultations" with consulate staff and "wasn't making any diplomatic presentations".

Or maybe the U.S. is worked up about a different ship altogether.

From the
Korea Times:

A North Korean ship, which the United States and Japan suspect of carrying military equipment, is on a voyage without any inspection after stopping at Hong Kong for refueling, a top South Korean security official confirmed yesterday.

Song Min-soon, the chief presidential secretary for security affairs, said at the National Assembly that the ship, named Ponghwasan, left Nampo of North Korea on Oct. 19 and has been sailing southward after fueling up at an outer port of Hong Kong.

Maybe it’s just three or four simple misunderstandings.

Or maybe the U.S. government is actually testing the limits of Chinese cooperation in the inspection of North Korean vessels.

What would be remarkable about this event would not the fact that the U.S. Navy was primed for “confrontation”; or that U.S. intelligence had once again cried “wolf” on a North Korean proliferation issue, or that Washington was aggressively and perhaps dishonestly exploiting questionable intelligence as a pretext for disrupting North Korean economic activity.

It would be remarkable if the seizure took place in Hong Kong waters by the Hong Kong government in response to UN sanctions against North Korea, presumably with the acquiescence of Beijing.

That would seem to strike at the heart of China’s hostility to forcible interdiction, and the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Regime that underlies it.

Some background:

The Proliferation Security Initiative is the brainchild of John Bolton. It asserts the right, responsibility, and need of various nations work together to interdict WMD-related cargoes.

Full stop.

Everything else about the PSI is a matter of conjecture, assertion, spin, and debate. It is
described as a “an activity not an organization”, creating ad hoc responses to self-defined concerns, with its successes and procedures--beyond an anodyne Statement of Principles —secret.

In 2003, when the United States was still riding (relatively) high in Iraq, John Bolton conceived the PSI as a kind of coalition of the willing on water skis.

In Bolton’s mind, the UN sanctions process, at least as it pertained to regimes that the U.S. was hostile to, was hamstrung by the U.N.’s constitutional abhorrence of military action and the use of the veto by various permanent members of the Security Council, notably Russia and China, to block aggressive implementation of sanctions.

America’s invasion of Iraq seemed to demonstrate the fact that the U.S., simply by virtue of its status as the world’s only superpower and a U.N. member in good standing, could assert its prerogative to enforce a U.N. mandate unilaterally, with an armed invasion, and without any explicit U.N. sanction either for military force in general or a U.S. led effort in particular.

The Proliferation Security Initiative—including many of the same nations that joined the invasion of Iraq—was designed as a mechanism to enforce certain U.N. sanctions that the U.S. considered critical when the U.N. itself proved unwilling or unable to mandate enforcement activities itself.

In the words of the Wall Street Journal
opinion page:

If arms control won't stop rogue bomb makers, what can? Well, regime change for one… But short of deposing a regime, the most successful policy has been the Bush Administration's Proliferation Security Initiative.

Operated out of the Pentagon on a "coalition of the willing" basis, PSI helped blow the whistle on Libya's clandestine nuclear program, rolled up A.Q. Khan's nuclear black market and has interdicted North Korean weapons shipments. The difference between this and the NPT is that the PSI doesn't give the feckless or evil a veto over what it does. It is a coalition of countries with a shared sense of purpose, and above all the willingness to act.

President Bush
claims that more than 70 countries have endorsed the PSI. But only about a dozen countries are active participants in the PSI with the United States, primarily the EU states, Canada, Singapore, Japan, and Australia. They participate in conferences on intelligence sharing and operational concerns, and engage in joint exercises.

But China, Russia, and South Korea—key nations if the system was to be applied against North Korea—refused to sign on.

China, in particular, has unhappy memories of the Yin He incident of 1993, when the Clinton administration alleged that a Chinese container ship was carrying chemical weapons precursors destined for Iran. Diplomatic pressure by the United States prevented the Yin He from docking at any of its planned ports of call. After futile representations and impotent protests by the Chinese government and 20 days in nautical and diplomatic limbo the unlucky vessel finally proceeded to Saudi Arabia’s Dammam Port for a joint inspection of its 728 containers by the United States, China, and the Saudis—which found nothing.

Without a powerful blue-water naval presence, China places great store in freedom of the seas to protect its maritime activities and detests the PSI as a pretext for unilateral US action against America’s enemies (and China’s allies), and a potential tool for harassment of China’s large merchant fleet.

It also worries about US efforts to expand the geographic, jurisdictional, and legal scope of the PSI—worries that are quite well founded.

In 2004, PSI activities were apparently (see the Congressional Research Service Report The Proliferation Security Initiative available at the FAS website) extended to the disruption of financial networks that PSI participants deemed complicit in WMD transactions, in addition to interdicting the physical transfer of WMD contraband.

Bolton has labored mightily to obtain an official U.N. imprimatur for the PSI, so that any actions under the PSI could be convincingly presented as an accepted, routine corollary to UN sanctions.

Not surprisingly, given the disastrous outcome of America’s insistence on doing the U.N.’s dirty work for it in Iraq, the U.N. failed to endorse an enforcement regime that was completely untransparent, lacked significant regulations or oversight, was completely unaccountable and uncontrollable, and was led by a superpower which had most recently made a convincing demonstration of its dishonesty and incompetence in claiming a U.N. mandate for aggression against a member state.

Global attitudes toward the initiative were not improved by John Bolton’s bald assertion that the rigors of the PSI would apply only to America’s enemies and not to its allies.

The Research Director of the Arms Control Association reported:

John Bolton, a chief architect of PSI, said in an interview with my organization’s monthly publication Arms Control Today, “There are unquestionably states that are not within existing treaty regimes that possess weapons of mass destruction legitimately. We’re not trying to have a policy that attempts to cover each and every one of those circumstances.” In other words, India, Israel, and Pakistan are not under PSI scrutiny despite their possession of the very weapons and materials that the initiative is trying to stop the trade in and the exposure of the A.Q. Khan network operating from Pakistan.

In 2004, the U.N., in response to a high-profile call by President Bush, passed UNSCR resolution 1540, criminalizing WMD proliferation by non-state actors.

Although proposed by the United States as a way to enshrine the PSI as UN doctrine, the final resolution that emerged from the UN sausage mill failing to endorse the PSI or, indeed, provide for any enforcement mechanism (see this excellent
report by the Acronym Institute for Disarmament Diplomacy on the unsuccessful effort to make PSI-style interdiction a legal obligation of member states).

A disapproving
analysis by the Jamestown Foundation stated:

The original intent of Washington to use the UN to change international law and criminalize behavior involving WMD proliferation was frustrated by Beijing. China had threatened to veto any resolution that endorsed the PSI. China has the world's third largest merchant fleet with over 2,000 ships, and will not allow them to be inspected for suspected arms shipments. Resolution 1540 is structured under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which would require Security Council approval for enforcement action – action which China could veto.The day before the UNSC vote on the resolution, John R. Bolton, Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security, acknowledged that passage of 1540 would not be enough to fulfill American objectives.

According to Mark Valencia of the Nautilus Institute:

The resolution that passed was a much watered down version of the original submitted by the United States. For example, under a threat of veto by China, the United States dropped a provision specifically authorizing the interdiction of vessels suspected of transporting WMD. The resolution does not specifically mention the PSI and does little to strengthen its effectiveness because it focuses on non-state actors. Moreover most UN members have failed to meet the deadline to submit required reports on their efforts to comply with the resolution, i.e., strengthening their domestic laws criminalizing the spread of WMD as well as their export and border controls.

But this has not discouraged the U.S. Its official response, according to a PSI FAQ on the State Department website is that “UNSCR 1540 and the PSI SOP are mutually reinforcing and are legally and political compatible.”

While frustrated in his efforts to establish an obligatory enforcement regime with the PSI at its core, Ambassador Bolton has systematically labored to assert a reach for the PSI beyond the traditional right of cooperating states to inspect suspect ships within their own territorial waters.

The Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Bolton stirred controversy [in 2003—ed.] when he stated after the meeting that "there is broad agreement within the group that we have [the] authority" to begin interdictions on the high seas and in international airspace. The United States feels it has such authorization in three cases, according to the newspaper The Australian: when ships do not display a nation's flag, they effectively become pirate ships that can be seized; when the ships use a "flag of convenience" and the nation chosen gives the United States or its allies permission, the ships can be stopped and searched; finally, Bolton told the paper, there is a "general right of self-defense" given a serious belief that the vessels carry WMD matériel.

Someone at the PSI mothership in the State Department has a sense of humor about the whole interdiction on the high seas issue. In a brief 12-item FAQ apparently designed to reveal nothing of significance (Question 1: Q.What are Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)? A. There is no universally accepted definition of the phrase 'weapons of mass destruction'…) the anonymous author pauses to address the following issue:

Q. Isn't the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) little better than state piracy?

A. Not at all. The PSI coalition members have made clear that any action taken will be in accordance with international law.

No, it’s supposed to be much better than state piracy. It’s supposed to be legal, dammit!

Despite Bolton’s assertions, however, the PSI nations have as yet shrunk from the momentous step of openly performing a forcible interdiction on the high seas.

Nevertheless, the PSI regime has been applied with considerable rigor to North Korea even before the nuclear tests and UNSCR 1718.

The Times of London
reported the character of the program quite frankly in its July 2006 article, West mounts 'secret war' to keep nuclear North Korea in check (Note the interesting element that China was reportedly already cooperating to cut off North Korea’s supply of verboten chemicals even before the current nuclear brouhaha):

A PROGRAMME of covert action against nuclear and missile traffic to North Korea and Iran is to be intensified after last week’s missile tests by the North Korean regime.

Intelligence agencies, navies and air forces from at least 13 nations are quietly co-operating in a “secret war” against Pyongyang and Tehran.

It has so far involved interceptions of North Korean ships at sea, US agents prowling the waterfronts in Taiwan, multinational naval and air surveillance missions out of Singapore, investigators poring over the books of dubious banks in the former Portuguese colony of Macau and a fleet of planes and ships eavesdropping on the “hermit kingdom” in the waters north of Japan.

Few details filter out from western officials about the programme, which has operated since 2003, or about the American financial sanctions that accompany it.

But together they have tightened a noose around Kim Jong-il’s bankrupt, hungry nation.

“Diplomacy alone has not worked, military action is not on the table and so you’ll see a persistent increase in this kind of pressure,” said a senior western official.

In a telling example of the programme’s success, two Bush administration officials indicated last year that it had blocked North Korea from obtaining equipment used to make missile propellant.
The Americans also persuaded China to stop the sale of chemicals for North Korea’s nuclear weapons scientists. And a shipload of “precursor chemicals” for weapons was seized in Taiwan before it could reach a North Korean port.

According to John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations and the man who originally devised the programme, it has made a serious dent in North Korea’s revenues from ballistic missile sales.

Japan has also been an enthusiastic
participant, taking dead aim at Pyongyang and its crabs of mass destruction:

In June 2003, Japan changed its policy in regard to the ferries operating from North Korea. Nearly 2,000 inspectors went to the port of Niigata to check for customs and immigration violations, infectious diseases, and safety violations on the North Korean vessel Man Gyong Bong-92. North Korea responded by immediately ceasing all ferries traveling between the two countries and cancelled a port visit by an unnamed vessel believed to be involved in espionage. The Japanese policy appears to be part of a large US strategy to involve regional actors in policing North Korean exports.

The Japanese Transport Minister, Chikage Ogi, stated that Japan intends to inspect all North Korean vessels at ports in Japan. On June 11 the 298 ton freighter Namsan 3 was detained at Maizuru and at the Otaru port in Hokkaido the 178-ton Daehungrason-2, carrying crabs, was also detained.

North Korea is especially vulnerable to interdiction activities. A significant percentage of its foreign exchange earnings derive from missile sales and various illegal shenanigans.

Chosun Daily

A study by Dr. Park Chang-kwon and Dr. Kim Myung-jin at the Korean Institute for Defense Analysis (KIDA) says full implementation of the PSI would deprive the North of hard currency gains of US$700 million-1 billion (US$=W958) by stopping exports of weapons and illegal drugs and counterfeit money. The sum accounts for 40-50 percent of the $2 billion the North earns through overseas transactions including inter-Korean business.

The fact that a relatively limited and politically defendable range of interdiction objectives under the flag of anti-proliferation could achieve destabilization and create regime change conditions roughly comparable to an economic blockade was something that Ambassador Bolton probably had in mind when he conceived of the PSI as a weapon against North Korea.

Nevertheless, U.N. legitimization of the PSI—and the right to demand inspection and interdiction based enforcement of U.N. sanctions by all member states--has eluded Bolton.

In UNSCR 1718, which instituted economic sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear test, reference to PSI’s keynote measure—compulsory inspection, with the implication that the PSI participants might execute the mandated responsibility that certain footdraggers like China, Russia, and South Korea might be unwilling to assume—was excluded from the final text, which refers only to voluntary inspections by individual states—a traditional right of sovereign states concerning cargo and people transiting their territorial waters and airspace that does not rely on anything like the PSI to legalize:

(f) in order to ensure compliance with the requirements of this paragraph, and thereby preventing illicit trafficking in nuclear, chemical or biological weapons, their means of delivery and related materials, all Member States are called upon to take, in accordance with their national authorities and legislation, and consistent with international law, cooperative action including through inspection of cargo to and from the DPRK, as necessary...

The Chinese ambassador clearly and unequivocally repudiated the PSI.

From the Financial Times:

China said it could not support the PSI. Wang Guangya, China’s UN ambassador, said: “Politically China will not [support the PSI]. I believe that the exercises under PSI will easily lead, whether it is intentional or not, to...escalations of provocations.”

Nevertheless, with his indefatigable determination to distort or ignore any facts that conflict with his cherished objective of institutionalizing the PSI at the UN level, Bolton asserted that the UNSCR 1718 was a de facto endorsement of PSI interdiction activities against North Korea.

On October 12, Ambassador Bolton stated:

Reporter: Ambassador, if you don't get the language specifically with regards to interdiction in this resolution, do you believe that the authority already exists under international law to conduct that kind of interdiction?

Ambassador Bolton: I think that under the Statement of Interdiction Principles provided by the Proliferation Security Initiative, we have as much authority as we need. What we want is a Chapter VII resolution that makes that binding on all member states, so that that authority exists not just for those in PSI but for everybody.

There you have it. In a miraculous piece of jiu jitsu, instead of acknowledging that the PSI enjoys no official UN sanction, Bolton asserted that the only role left for the UN. is to compel its member states to adhere to the PSI regime that he invented.

It is this topsy-turvy view of the status of the U.N. that, I believe, explains why Ambassador Bolton was so determined to serve at an institution he so obviously detests, even though the U.S. Congress was so doubtful of his fitness for the job it refused to confirm him and instead subjected him to the humiliation of a recess appointment.

In Bolton’s mind, I believe, global security policy is formulated by the United States and it is his work to see that this policy becomes a binding obligation--enforceable if need be by the US and its allies--of the U.N. and its member states.

With his single-minded dedication to his policy and his instinctive contempt for the institution, its members, and its processes, John Bolton is the man to drive the UN to the necessary outcome through the shaping of appropriately-worded UN resolutions; the issuance of one sided declarations to meant to obscure opposition and exploit ambiguity; and, of course, the relentless jawboning of the media with his unique take on reality.

The North Korean crisis has been accompanied by an orgy of spinmeistering, abetted by a credulous press, intended to impute the UN stamp of approval on the PSI:

From the Financial Times:

Mr Bolton said: “The resolution...specifically gives states the right and indeed the obligation to help in inspections . . . that’s a substantial step forward.” He saw the move as a “codification” of the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative.

“I expect most inspections would take place in port. That is the most desirable,” he said. But “there are circumstances in which ships could be boarded at sea”. Land and air cargo would also be subject to inspection.

From Australia's ABC:

... by allowing cargo inspection, the document still puts an international imprimatur on the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative.

From the AP via Fox:

The council's go-ahead for the inspection of cargo gave broader global scope to the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative launched in 2003 which urges countries to stop banned weapons from suspect countries including North Korea and Iran.

The Daily Telegraph:

The approval of the Security Council resolution bolsters the right of US naval commanders to stop and search suspect vessels. North Korean trade will now be liable to constant scrutiny.

From The Australian:

Resolution 1718 was a personal triumph for Mr Bolton, who managed to persuade a hesitant China not to veto the inclusion of the clause authorising the interdiction and inspection of cargo going to and from North Korea.

The provision effectively extends the controversial Proliferation Security Initiative, an informal alliance of some 60 nations including Australia that was set up by the US in 2002 to guard against the trade in weapons of mass destruction and related materials.

Congressman Ed Royce who, presumably, knows better (since he’s the chairman of the House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on International Terrorism and Nonproliferation) managed to get two things—the UN endorsement and the high seas thing--wrong about the PSI in an op-ed in the Washing Times touting it as the best mechanism for handling the North Korean situation:

This low-key administration initiative, which has the U.N.'s blessing, has been interdicting illegal shipments of missiles and nuclear technology on the high seas.

From Ambassador Bolton himself:

The resolution also provides for a regime of inspections to ensure compliance with its provisions, building on the existing work of the Proliferation Security Initiative.

One of the ever more evident realities of Bolton-world is that any UN or international response to PSI short of formal official repudiation will be defiantly spun as a ringing endorsement of the effort and its author.

However, contrary to Ambassador Bolton’s vociferous assertions and reportage in a supportive international press that wears out the thesaurus (“codification”, “imprimatur”, “gives broader global scope”, “bolsters”, “effectively extends” etc.) on his behalf, UNSCR 1718 stops well short of endorsing, legitimizing, or even referencing the PSI regime.

I don’t see any evidence that Secretary Rice’s swing through Asia and Moscow has convinced any doubters that UNSCR 1718 should be regarded as a legal or moral obligation on them to inspect North Korean cargo. Interdiction and inspection will remain options for sovereign nations, and not obligations of member states conforming to a U.N. resolution—or U.S. interpretation of their responsibilities.

If one brushes aside the voluminous chaff distributed by the US and its allies, UNSCR 1718 is pretty straightforward: economic sanctions against North Korea until it returns without conditions to the Six-Party talks to negotiate the dismantling of its nuclear and missile programs.

It is not a universal commitment to a global program of compulsory economic harassment against North Korea whose extent and severity are matters to be decided by the United States.

The PSI can be seen as Bolton’s riposte to the current strategy of China and Russia to limit America’s capacity for mischief on issues like North Korea and Iran by explicitly precluding military action in any and all UN resolutions pertaining to these countries.

In the case of North Korea, Beijing and Moscow opened the door to economic sanctions only but limited the reach of sanctions—and the scope for potential unilateral enforcement of sanctions by the US and its allies—by refusing to allow compulsory interdiction and inspection to become a universal obligation of UN member states.

US efforts to expand the number of front line states willing to sign on to PSI activities against North Korea are unlikely to succeed. Therefore, the Bush administration and its close allies will have to be satisfied with discovering how far and effectively they can push the envelope of de facto economic blockade while limited to their territorial waters—and whatever activity in international waters they have the temerity to conduct.

If a similar situation arises vis a vis Iran, I consider it extremely unlikely that China and Russia will support even economic sanctions against Teheran, precisely because of Washington’s highly aggressive promotion of the PSI regime against Pyongyang.

Therefore, I would find it quite fascinating and significant if China had actually acquiesced to a PSI-style action—complete with a missile cruiser primed for “confrontation”--in Hong Kong harbor.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Can the U.S. Keep the North Korean Pot Boiling?

After the disconcerting spectacle of Tony Snow’s charm offensive directed at Kim Jung Il, it’s almost a relief to see the United States back to its usual business of hyping the crisis, antagonizing Kim Jung Il, and irritating our diplomatic partners.

On the way to Moscow, Condoleezza Rice insisted that Chinese president Hu Jintao’s envoy to Kim Jung Il, Tang Jiaxuan, had not told her anything about any apology or promise not to detonate another nuclear device by Kim Jung Il and asserted that the crisis was alive and well:

The secretary of state was in Beijing on Friday, but she said the Chinese made no mention of Mr Kim agreeing to halt nuclear tests, despite giving her a "thorough" briefing on Mr Tang's visit to Pyongyang.

"I don't know whether or not Kim Jong-il said any such thing," Ms Rice told journalists accompanying her on a flight from Beijing to Moscow.

"Tang did not tell me that Kim Jong-il either apologised for the test or said that he would not ever test again," Ms Rice added.

"The North Koreans, I think, would like to see an escalation of the tension."

Maybe it’s true.

Not the part about the North Koreans wanting to escalate the tension.

But the part about how she doesn’t know what Kim Jung Il said.

Because it seems Tang didn’t tell her.

What Tang did say to Secretary Rice was:

"Fortunately my visit to the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) this time has not been in vain," Tang told Rice at the start of their meeting.

“Not in vain” certainly indicates that China doesn’t expect to be blindsided by a new North Korean test for the time being.

Neither do the Japanese, is the impression that can be gathered from Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso:

Though it is not confirmed, we have obtained information that... the country won't conduct a second nuclear test.

Despite their inexplicable reticence in discussions with Miss Rice, it would seem the Chinese decided to leak the news of Kim Jung Il’s climbdown to all and sundry in the South Korean and Japanese media:

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il told Chinese special envoy Tang Jiaxuan on Thursday his country has no plans to conduct an additional nuclear test, a diplomatic source said.

All in all, I think Secretary of State Rice is engaged an uphill battle to keep the Korean crisis on the boil—and keep the United States in the lead role in framing the debate and directing the international response.

Absent a credible, deliverable nuclear threat from Kim Jung Il, the U.S. has emphasized a crisis narrative based on the dangers of North Korean proliferation of its small stocks of fissile material and unproven technology.

President Bush led the charge, assisted by that loyal and indefatigable factotum, the unnamed official:

"I don't think you'll find guys saying they've got devices ready to sell off the shelf," said a U.S. intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the classified nature of the subject. "I think the concern would be about components and raw material."

In reporting this development, the LA Times adopted a skeptical tone:

Recent sanctions imposed by the United Nations bar North Korea from spreading nuclear material or technology. And most experts said the country would probably refrain from doing so. "It's still a low-probability worry," said Michael Levi, a nuclear weapons expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, "but it's the high consequences that make people concerned."

The U.S. government has a documented history of crying wolf on this issue.

Last year the Washington Post reported on a previous U.S. attempt to depict North Korea’s proliferation potential as an immediate security crisis.

The title pretty much says it all:

U.S. Misled Allies About Nuclear Export

In an effort to increase pressure on North Korea, the Bush administration told its Asian allies in briefings earlier this year that Pyongyang had exported nuclear material to Libya. That was a significant new charge, the first allegation that North Korea was helping to create a new nuclear weapons state.

But that is not what U.S. intelligence reported, according to two officials with detailed knowledge of the transaction. North Korea, according to the intelligence, had supplied uranium hexafluoride -- which can be enriched to weapons-grade uranium -- to Pakistan. It was Pakistan, a key U.S. ally with its own nuclear arsenal, that sold the material to Libya. The U.S. government had no evidence, the officials said, that North Korea knew of the second transaction.

…a North Korea-Pakistan transfer would not have been news to the U.S. allies, which have known of such transfers for years and viewed them as a business matter between sovereign states.

The Bush administration's approach, intended to isolate North Korea, instead left allies increasingly doubtful as they began to learn that the briefings omitted essential details about the transaction, U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said in interviews.

The United States briefed allies on North Korea in late January and early February [2005—ed.]. Shortly afterward, administration officials, speaking to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity, said North Korea had sold uranium hexafluoride to Libya. The officials said the briefing was arranged to share the information with China, South Korea and Japan ahead of a new round of hoped-for negotiations on North Korea's nuclear program.

But in recent days, two other U.S. officials said the briefings were hastily arranged after China and South Korea indicated they were considering bolting from six-party talks on North Korea.

Not good. Not good for American credibility, or for U.S. pretensions to leadership on North Asian security matters.

Today, there does not appear to be any international support for U.S. declaration of a North Korean proliferation crisis, with its implication of the need for interdiction, forcible abrogation of North Korean sovereignty in order to dismantle its nuclear capability, an intrusive inspection regime, and all the other aggravation involved in designating the DPRK a rogue state that threatens the survival of the planet—not least of which is the license it give to the United States to organize a pre-emptive initiative with its allies outside the U.N. and multilateral system (I will discuss the Proliferation Security Initiative—Washington’s custom-built mechanism for unilaterally exerting military force under this policy—in a separate post).

The Russians, according to the Telegraph, were pretty blunt:

The talks were held behind closed doors, but [Russian Foreign Minister] Mr Lavrov made the Kremlin's view plain in an interview with the Kuwaiti news agency Kuna, published hours before Miss Rice landed in Moscow at the end of a four-nation tour.

Accusing Washington of being as intransigent as Pyongyang, Mr Lavrov said: "Both sides need to show flexibility." He added that he was disappointed with the international response to the October 9 test, saying: "Everyone- should demonstrate realism and avoid extreme, uncompromising positions."

The BBC, under the skeptical heading International threat?, picked up the theme.

Ms. Rice is seeking to bolster international support for enforcing UN sanctions imposed after the communist state's 9 October nuclear test.

The Russians condemned the test when it happened, and the Kremlin has made it clear that it does not welcome a nuclear-armed North Korea, but the BBC's James Rodgers in Moscow says there is little sense in the Russian capital that the world faces a clear and immediate threat.

The Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Ivanov, has said that the sanctions against Pyongyang should be lifted if it returns to the negotiating table.

So Secretary Rice has got her work cut out for her in convincing the participants in the six party talks that this is an escalating crisis that justifies heightened hand-wringing, frantic shuttling, anxious meetings, more sanctions, and the threat of escalation instead of concessions, negotiations, opportunistic muddling along and maybe, just maybe, a specific indication from the United States as to what we hope to get out of all of this.

One assumes that Secretary Rice is in it for more than the psychic benefits of being able to stride purposefully through hallways, jet to exotic capitals, and engage in grip-and-grin sessions with world leaders.

A logical assumption is that the U.S. wants to use North Korea as a precedent for confronting Iran—one that will evade the need to work through the UN as the primary multilateral mechanism.

For Washington, the teachable moment here is that a group of powers clubbed together, secretly decided on a particular strategy for North Korea, and then imposed it, not through the U.N., but by using the UNSC sanctions as only one of several coordinated policy instruments.

This is apparently a precedent that Secretary Rice is eager to apply:

"The greatest challenge to the nonproliferation regime comes from countries that violate their pledges to respect the Nonproliferation Treaty. The North Korean regime is one such case, but also so is Iran. The Iranian government is watching, and it can now see that the international community will respond to threats from nuclear proliferation. I expect the Security Council to begin work this week on an Iran sanctions resolution so the Iranian government should consider the course that it is on, which could lead simply to further isolation."

Secretary of State Rice says that there is now a coalition of countries working together "for a change in Iranian behavior concerning their nuclear program." It is widely understood that "Iran is the problem," says Ms. Rice. "The president [George W. Bush] has put together these coalitions. It's the right way to go about this activity, and it is the only way to use a diplomatic solution to resolve these cases."

However, the general international apathy for escalating the North Korean problem into a crisis does not bode well for America’s efforts to perform some miraculous diplomatic jiu jitsu to convert modulated support for containing Pyongyang into firebreathing ardor for confronting Teheran.

And there will probably be active opposition to any diplomatic initiatives that might give President Bush apparent sanction to unleash another "coalition of the willing" on the Middle East.

The initiative on North Korean succeeded precisely because China excluded the U.S. from a leadership role and refused to allow the United States to escalate tensions and define the North Korean situation as a grave crisis that justified interdiction or pre-emptive action by a group of concerned states outside of the explicit sanction of the U.N.

No support appears to exist for any claims by the U.S. that the UNSC resolution represented approval or acquiescence by the concerned powers or the UN to the application of coercive inspections, let alone military force, by America and its allies.

That, despite Secretary Rice’s efforts, is the pattern that will probably reassert itself vis a vis Iran. Whether the United States chooses to acknowledge and heed this reality is, of course, another matter entirely.

Friday, October 20, 2006

North Korean Regime Change R.I.P.?

Passionate regime changers will have some problems with Bush administration spokesperson Tony Snow’s remarks this morning:

The United States said it does not want to dominate or humiliate North Korea and is instead offering "a pretty good deal" of economic and diplomatic benefits for giving up nuclear weapons.
"As to the central charge of trying to humiliate or to make them go to their knees, it's just the opposite," White House spokesman Tony Snow said in response to a North Korean general's comments to ABC television.

"Not only do we not want North Korea to kneel down before (us), but what we're trying to do is offer them a better deal -- better economy, more security, better relations with their neighbors, integration into the global community, as opposed to isolation. A pretty good deal," he said.

"What we want to do is give North Korea an opportunity to enjoy the same kinds of privileges and prosperity that are available to other nations in the region," said the spokesman.

"What we've tried to do in the case of the government of North Korea is not to engage in personal insults about Kim Jong II but to talk directly about what the government has been doing and how we're trying to work with people in the neighborhood to help out North Korea," he said.

Maybe the White House saw this headline on MSNBC, woke up and, as we say, smelled the coffee:

Report: Kim sorry about N. Korea nuclear test
He is said to tell China that six-party talks could restart under conditions

Maybe the White House has belatedly realized that its aggressive policy to isolate, pressure, and destabilize North Korea has simply played into Beijing’s hands by pushing Pyongyang firmly under the thumb of its massive neighbor. Now prospects for North Korea to behave as anything other than a Chinese satellite—and a helpless pawn in the PRC’s efforts to button up the Korean peninsula as a Chinese sphere of influence—are extremely remote.

Previously, I argued:

Indeed, fresh, legitimate, and reinvigorated North Korean leadership—or a prosperous North Korean economy--may be the last thing China wants. What I believe China wants is a North Korean regime that is profoundly isolated, helpless, and totally reliant on Chinese good offices to survive.

Right now, Kim Jung Il—and the United States and Japan—are pretty much doing China’s work for it.

Ironically, by this reading, the United States could profit from the estrangement between China and North Korea by embarking on a swift rapprochement with Pyongyang.

Instead , we are doing everything within our power to force North Korea under China’s heel and, in the process, prolong the same North Korean regime and system that we have sworn to destroy.

Unfortunately,it looks like it’s a little too late for a dramatic rapprochement with Kim Jung Il’s humiliated regime, though Mr. Snow makes a valiant effort to smooth things over:

"It is not unusual for the North Koreans to use strong rhetoric," said Snow. "We, right now, are focused on using all of our efforts on a diplomatic path to work with that government of North Korea so that they're going to do things that are going to be good for all of them.

"What we've tried to do in the case of the government of North Korea is not to engage in personal insults about Kim Jong II but to talk directly about what the government has been doing and how we're trying to work with people in the neighborhood to help out North Korea," he said.

"And, you know, there are disagreements, but also a lot of times what happens is people engage in some public diplomacy," he said.

All that nasty stuff we used to say about Kim Jung Il? You know, like this:

[I]n a taped interview with Bob Woodward, [President Bush] insisted, "I loathe Kim Jong Il!" waving his finger in the air. "I've got a visceral reaction to this guy, because he is starving his people." Bush also said that he wanted to "topple him," and that he considered the leader to be a "pygmy." Woodward wrote that the president had become so emotional while speaking about Kim Jong Il that "I thought he might jump up."

Just kidding! A little bit of public diplomacy joshing by our high-spirited chief executive.

And “Axis of Evil”? You know, from the President’s State of the Union address?

North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens.

States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

We'll be deliberate, yet time is not on our side. I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons. (Applause.)

Fuggedaboutit! Just a bit of diplomacy enabling rhetoric.

North Korea can now be evaluated as a squandered opportunity by the Bush administration. It reversed a policy of engagement with North Korea that could have drawn Pyongyang away from Beijing and sustained Kim Jung Il’s regime as an independent and potentially useful variable in North Asian affairs.

The White House substituted a policy of confrontation.

However, the failure to find WMDs in Iraq and the creation of a bloody quagmire there stripped America of the diplomatic and military means of forcing its policy of confrontation through to its final, logical, and necessary conclusion.

The US had an opportunity to abandon this unworkable approach and change course when the second Bush administration took office in 2004, but chose not to.

Instead we persisted in our refusal to engage with North Korea and escalated the confrontation through the financial sanctions that triggered the Pyongyang’s nuclear test, the ensuing UN sanctions, and the crowning Japanese, Australian, and US unilateral sanctions.

The Chinese then took advantage with economic and financial pressure designed to cut the heart out of North Korea and Kim Jung Il pathetically capitulated.

To China.

Not to us.

Now an isolated and battered North Korean regime understands it has no alternative to a straitened existence under China’s heel. South Korea will undoubtedly acknowledge the China’s determination and ability to drive events on the peninsula and continue its drift away from America into China’s orbit.

If we want to know what’s going on there, we can always ask the Chinese. And they’ll tell us.


“The Chinese are emphasizing the need for six-party talks to begin again and for the North to re-engage in the talks,” Rice told reporters in Beijing. “They (North Korea) urged us to be open to returning to those talks without preconditions, which for us is not difficult,” she said after talks with Tang.

But Rice did not hear of any concrete assurances or any kind of apology from North Korean during the talks with Tang, or even specifics on how North Korea might be drawn back into the six-party talks, sources at the meeting told NBC foreign affairs correspondent Andrea Mitchell. The talks were described not as a breakthrough but as possibly the start of a long diplomatic track.

I wonder if China will even decide to dismantle North Korea’s miniscule nuclear arsenal as a sop to the West. Or preserve it as Beijing’s personal bargaining chip when discussions turn to Korean unification—or Iran.

That’s what you get when you lack both the means to destroy a regime and the will to engage with it.

And I think that’s going to take more than a few press conferences to turn around.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Intimate Enemies: Pyongyang, Beijing, and the Nuclear Factor

The North Korean nuclear crisis is, at its heart, a struggle between Beijing and Pyongyang.

As I’ve previously
argued, North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear antics are an effort to demand attention, respect, and assistance from the PRC.

Certainly, I don’t think anybody seriously believes that Kim Jung Il expected to be able to extort concessions from George Bush and John Bolton prior to the U.S. mid-term elections with a piece of nuclear blackmail.

North Korea’s weapons programs are meant to discommode China with the threat of a Asian arms race and the specter of Japan becoming a pro-active regional security force with US backing, and remind Beijing of the necessity of advancing North Korea’s interests on the world stage—in this particular case, getting China to support lifting some onerous U.S. financial sanctions.

Well, I believe China’s looked at its options and opportunities and decided that the best riposte to North Korea’s nuclear program is to strip Pyongyang of its independence in national defense and foreign affairs—in other words, assert virtually the same suzerainty that China imposed on the peninsula before the Japanese occupation in 1895.

A little background:

Chinese-North Korean relations are poisonous, in fact possibly terminally dysfunctional.

Two nations that once shared a battlefield against the United States are now fundamentally split by diverging interests.

Beijing gives priority to its relations with South Korea and its plans for the future economic integration of the peninsula under Beijing’s aegis.

North Korea desperately struggles to create a future in which it shares in the prosperity of the region but keeps its sovereignty, independence, and regime intact.

An excerpt from Dr. Andrew Scobell’s study, China and North Korea: From Comrades-In-Arms to Allies at Arm's Length,
available at the U.S. Army War College website, gives the idea of the fraught character of North Korean—Chinese relations:

Tensions reportedly emerged in the late 1990s over either unmet North Korean demands for Chinese aid or Chinese pressure on North Korea to reform. According to one account, in early 1996 Pyongyang asked for a substantial amount of grain and Beijing responded by offering only a tenth of this. Kim Jong Il was reportedly incensed and threatened to “play the Taiwan card” unless China was forthcoming on an even broader set of demands...

According to another account, a team of Chinese agricultural experts, who visited North Korea in the spring of 1997 under the auspices of the UN Development Program, recommended that their hosts adopt Chinese style reforms without delay. Pyongyang responded by calling Deng Xiaoping a traitor to socialism. Beijing took umbrage and threatened to halt its food aid. Pyongyang responded by initiating talks with Taiwan on the subject of opening direct air links between Taipei and Pyongyang. After the Chinese dropped its threat, the North Koreans broke off talks...

Here’s some more from an
article by Alexandre Mansourov of the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, entitled Giving Lip Service with an Attitude: North Korea's China Debate:

Overall, North Korean officials consider the sporadic trickle of economic aid from China to be pathetic. They say every time Beijing offers a grant-in-aid to Pyongyang, it is accompanied with numerous political conditions (which, to be fair, are rarely implemented). For comparison, they often refer to the Asian financial crisis and say that when an American ally, South Korea, found itself in deep trouble in 1998, Washington provided Seoul with US$57 billion in international financial assistance without many reservations or pressure, thereby saving the ROK’s economy from financial meltdown.

Moreover, Kim’s regime seems to support the widely held popular belief that during the arduous 1990s, Chinese merchants actually took advantage of the North Korean economic difficulties by plundering the DPRK’s natural resources, including its timber saw mills, coal mines, and ore deposits, as well as collecting its idle factory machinery and inoperable plant equipment such as iron and metal scrap, in exchange for the daily necessities and consumer goods of questionable quality and second-hand nature. Official grumbles and local public complaints both stress that “the Chinese can do more to help us, but they don’t; and what they give us is of dubious value and low quality, especially the expired medicines, rotten food, worn-out clothes, poorly distilled hard liqueur, and very bad cigarettes.”

China has been a bad patron. Well, North Korea’s been a pretty bad client.

One element that is undoubtedly poisoning the relationship is the fact that North Korea has racked up a US$ five billion dollar trade deficit with China over the last ten years. Assuming that China is unwilling to be paid in high quality counterfeit banknotes or illicit drugs, the PRC is probably carrying Kim Jung Il’s tab. And Mr. Kim doesn’t strike me as a particularly grateful, conscientious, or scrupulous debtor.

As a result, China is apparently forcing North Korea to pay for the nose for its support. Petroleum is provided to North Korea for hard currency—no surprise there. The Nautilus Institute theorizes that North Korea is selling coal to China at “friendship” rates. A defector reported that the Chinese are insisting that old debts be cleared before new business can be done.

Bad behavior on both sides has been exacerbated by China’s important and ever-growing relationship with South Korea. The volume of trade between China and the South is about forty times greater than that between China and North Korea.

The LA Times did a good job of describing the PRC relationship with South Korea (Mark Magnier, N. Korean Threat Different for China, Los Angeles Times print edition, October 13, 2006).

“South Korea is the big prize in all of this,” said Ralph Cossa, executive director of the Honolulu-based Pacific Forum…

…Since relations between Beijing and Seoul were normalized in 1992, China has watched approvingly as anti-American sentiment has grown in South Korea, U.S. troop levels have declined, China has supplanted the United States as Seoul’s largest trading partner and trendy young Koreans have dropped their English-language classes in droves to study Mandarin.

In Beijing’s plans for a prosperous, pro-Chinese Korean peninsula, cooperation with the South Korean powerhouse looms large.

In an interview this year, China’s director of the Korean Peninsula Research Center of the State Council, Li Dunqiu

Lee: There are some lawmakers in South Korea who believe Korea should make a strategic partnership with China over America in the 21st century.

Dunqiu: They are correct. In the 21st century, Korea needs to come closer to China. First, China and Korea share common interests that are larger than those between Korea and the U.S.

In East Asia, America just wants to maintain its hegemonic order. The U.S. has little regard for stability, prosperity and common development in the region. The main reason is that essentially the U.S. itself isn't located in the region. On the other hand, China pays closer attention to these issues than the U.S. does.

In Beijing’s romance with Seoul, North Korea’s current regime is at best an inconvenience and irritant and at worst a dangerous, disruptive force.

I think the North Koreans are furious about China’s malign neglect, and not simply because of injured pride and frustrated ambition.

It needs to be understood that North Korea contains the kernel of a viable state with an independent foreign policy. And that’s what it wants: to return to the international order, to prosper, and have alternatives to Chinese “vassalage”.

North Korea is a lot like South Korea: high population density, limited arable land, dependent on imports of grain and petroleum to keep its economy going. North Korea possesses a wealth of problems and inflicts enormous suffering on its population, but the need to import food and fuel is not by itself a sign of failed-state-itis.

China is incorrectly described as “providing 70%” of North Korea’s energy needs in the LA Times article cited above, a misconception which I believe is fairly common.

According to the Federation of American Scientists, North Korea has significant reserves of coal and hydropower and continues:

Oil accounts for about 6% of total North Korean primary energy consumption, and is largely limited to non-substitutable uses such as motor gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Oil is imported from China and the Soviet Union by pipeline, and from Iran by sea.

North Korea relies on coal for power generation, exports over $100 million of coal to China per annum, and even exports electric power to China on occasion, presumably when it is desperate for a quick shot of foreign exchange. Last year it imported about $286 million dollars worth of petroleum products from China, mostly crude.

In contrast, South Korea imports 70% of its grain and 97% of its energy needs—a combined tab of about $20 billion per year—to keep its economy humming.

The difference, of course, is that South Korea is integrated into the global capitalist economy and easily generates the hard currency needed for its imports. North Korea went the other way, allying with a socialist bloc that collapsed catastrophically in 1989 and now has to scramble to come up with the foreign exchange to finance its imports.

North Korea has been working desperately to find a new niche—and has been, at least, partially successful.

It’s politically convenient to define North Korea as a failed state (see a backgrounder from the Council for Foreign Relations for the bleak conventional
view) but, according to some people, the North Korean economy is looking up!

headline one can’t expect to see in the United States but was carried in the Sydney Morning Herald (H/T to Asia Pundit) pretty much says it all: North Korea Rogue State or Next Tiger? and continues:

The other North Korea is described in a Citigroup economic report, which South Korean officials handed to US Treasury secretary Hank Paulson last month on the sidelines of the IMF's annual general meeting in Singapore.

It describes state-owned enterprises which are free to chase profits and award merit-based pay. It shows Pyongyang's black markets for food and foreign exchange to be converging with its official markets. It surveys no likely internal trigger for regime collapse.

Amazingly, it concludes: "North Korea's economic reforms are probably broadly comparable to those in China in the mid- to late-1980s. In some areas, such as foreign exchange rate policy, North Korea is probably already beyond the China of the early 1990s. Actual progress in economic reforms has been way beyond our expectations."

“Actual progress in economic reforms has been way beyond our expectations.”

How about that…

Certainly, North Korea is not a worker’s paradise by any stretch of the imagination.

But it is doing its darnedest to work out of that pickle caused by the collapse of the socialist bloc.

But that’s a narrative that the United States isn’t interested in.

Neither, apparently, is China.

The North Korean economy is poised for real gains that could stabilize the regime and secure its reign. But Pyongyang has been frustrated by Beijing’s niggardly aid, and actions that look like intentional measures to strangle the North Korean economy.

There is nothing more important to North Korean in its efforts to shed its status as pariah state than access to the international finance and banking system.

I doubt that U.S. financial sanctions are aimed at the relatively insignificant amounts of counterfeit cash and other illicit transactions. They were intended to warn off banks and international investors interested in legitimate trade and investment with North Korea.

And, amazingly, the Chinese went along with it, freezing North Korean accounts at the Bank of China Macau branch.

The ramifications went far beyond these two banks.

In August 2006, the Financial Times

“I understand the Bank of China stopped dealing with North Korea as the US expanded its probe,” said Mr Park. “This is a virtual ban against dealing with North Korea by China, leaving North Korea all the more devastated,” Mr Park [a South Korean politician—ed.]said, quoting a former Bush administration official. …

North Korean and foreign businessmen dealing with Pyongyang say sanctions have shut down the regime’s ability to earn foreign currency.

Several banks have severed ties with North Korea after the BDA action, leading Pyongyang reportedly to open new accounts containing $200m-$300m in countries including Switzerland, Austria, Russia and Singapore.

“The reason North Korea is so upset about BDA is because of its impact on its bank accounts in other countries,” said Mr Park.

Was China’s action a simple gift to the United States?

Or an effort to isolate North Korea and increase its dependence on China as a source of credit, investment, and financial facilities—and diplomatic good offices?

Andrew Scobell has argued that China’s goal for the peninsula is not unification, with its threat of a capitalist, US-leaning regime stretching all the way up to the Yalu River. Instead it is “reconciliation”, with a reformed but still socialist and pro-Chinese regime deeply engaged economically and diplomatically with South Korea.

However, relations between North Korea and China may have deteriorated to the point beyond which any joint policy of shared interests, dialogue, and coordinated action may be impossible.

To me, the most revealing
passage in Selig Harrison’s description of the failed negotiations between the US and North Korea in 2005 was this passage:

Significantly, however, several [senior North Korean officials], speaking off the record, pointed to North Korea's "strategic geopolitical location" and emphasized that Pyongyang wanted close ties with the United States, a faraway power, to offset pressures from its neighbors. "It would be good for the United States," one of them said, "to have us as a neutral buffer state in this dangerous area. Who knows, perhaps there are ways in which the United States could benefit from our ports and our intelligence if we become friends."

It brings to mind Kim Jung Il’s absurd stunt of threatening to establish air links with Taipei.

Don’t you think Pyongyang has made a similar to pitch to Russia? Or to South Korea in a “let’s negotiate directly and cut out the Chinese” sort of way? They are probably even trying the same line on Japan.

So, on top of disappointment and resentment, one can add duplicity and suspicion to the toxic stew of Chinese-North Korean relations. With China seduced by the power and wealth of South Korea and North Korea desperately and secretly flirting with any nation that will take a meeting, it looks like the shared interests and trust between Beijing and Pyongyang has virtually evaporated.

Because of a fundamental divergence of interests and the well-earned mutual distrust it has engendered, it appears that North Korea can no longer be persuaded that Beijing’s policy has Pyongyang’s best interests at heart.

Now China has decided it’s time to show the iron fist beneath the threadbare velvet glove.

What seems to have happened is that China has decided that the current North Korean regime is an unsuitable vehicle for the reliable promotion of Chinese interests, but that regime change or voluntary reform--on Chinese terms--is virtually impossible.

Beijing has therefore opted for a particularly stern and confrontational process of involuntary behavior modification in order to ensure that Pyongyang does not upset the Chinese applecart on the Korean peninsula.

The problem is not a matter of nukes. Its essence is sovereignty—and Pyongyang’s frantic efforts to escape its total reliance on its half-hearted and dishonest Chinese patron.

I don’t think China is worrying overmuch about North Korea triggering an arms race in Asia. Abe’s determination to assert Japan’s military presence in the region derives from the nature of his security-driven strategic alliance with the United States—and against China--and only secondarily by what North Korea does or doesn’t do.

What China worries about is North Korea acting independently on diplomatic and security issues and disrupting Beijing’s dangerous dance with its aggressive South Korean partner—and undermining its effort to situate the entire Korean peninsula securely within China’s sphere of economic, diplomatic, and military influence to the exclusion of the United States and Japan.

Whenever North Korea fires a missile or lights off a nuke, or strengthens its economy through reform, or engages in independent diplomatic initiatives, it’s an attempt to assert Pyongyang’s value as somebody worth talking to, creating a space for North Korea to act independently—and undercutting Chinese pretensions as the supreme arbiter on the peninsula.

It is this independence—rather than the nuclear and missile programs, which are simply aspects of this independence—that China wants to crush. If North Korea can’t be an obedient and tractable client, I think the Chinese decided, let it be an impotent and silent one.

So I think it’s been a misreading of China’s position to describe it as half-hearted in its conduct of sanctions against North Korea.

Certainly, China has no interest in regime change in North Korea. The valuable lesson it has extracted from America’s adventure in Iraq is that the citizens of the most despised regimes fiercely resist external efforts at nationbuilding--even by superpowers that regard themselves as omniscient and omnipotent.

China wants to keep regime changers at bay and, therefore, has resisted the forcible interdiction element that John Bolton has been trying to shoehorn into the UNSC 1718.

However, China is quite serious about applying economic pressure that will cause Pyongyang to abandon its dreams of an independent, nuke-supported foreign policy.

China, I think, would be very well pleased if North Korea gave up on its nuclear ambitions—but still retained its helpless posture as a pariah state--and slunk back to the Six Party talks to let China mediate with the international order on its behalf.

It looks like China has made the decision to make North Korea bend its knee and return to satrap status.

China’s best option for bringing North Korea to heel is a carefully modulated program of isolation—abetted, perhaps unwittingly, by the West—confrontation, and escalating pressure.

If this program requires sabotaging North Korea’s efforts to strengthen its economy and independence through reforms, export growth, and access to foreign investment and the international financial system, well so be it.

If Kim Jung Il is unwilling to acquiesce, the Chinese might also withhold the relatively modest amount of aid that would prop up his reign and revive the North Korean economy, and await the emergence of a more tractable leader.

In terms of historical parallels, China may well consider Kim Jung Il as North Korea’s Hua Guofeng: heir to a legendary national leader, trapped by a flawed but pervasive ideological and political legacy and sclerotic political and economic institutions he is unable and unwilling to rejuvenate, and ripe to be pushed aside by reformers keen to sacrifice elements of the old order in favor of a new, bureaucratic capitalist dispensation.

Mansourov observes:

Significant portions of the North Korean economic and military elites appear to admire and envy Chinese economic accomplishments. They quietly wonder why their own leaders seem to be reluctant to emulate the triumphant examples of Chinese reforms…

Andrei Lankov
argues that the North Korean elites would happily bestow their loyalty upon a new, pro-Chinese clique in Pyongyang rather than face than unemployment or worse in a post-unification, U.S. leaning Korea.

However, given the toxic residue of grudging support, resentful client status, and serial duplicity by both sides—and the perception that China may have intentionally foreclosed a stable and prosperous future for the current regime in order to advance China’s selfish interests--significant elements of North Korea’s elite might very well share the general Asian aversion to hands-on Chinese political and economic tutelage.

If so, despite the failures of the regime, they might resist an urge to sideline Kim Jung Il and replace him with a ruler eager to sing from the Chinese economic and diplomatic hymnbook.

This element of defiant nationalism is something that American planners hooked on the “maniacal killer dwarf” and “failed state” image might do well to consider before we go down the whole regime-change and welcomed-as-liberators route.

That’s a calculation I believe the Chinese have already made, and that’s why they are so lukewarm on the idea that cutting off the oil supply, as the U.S.
asked them to do as far back as 2003, in order to provoke economic chaos and a political crisis in North Korea.

I think the Chinese will take an extremely passive, hands-off approach to any leadership change in Pyongyang, and wait for a new leadership group well grounded in the current elite to establish itself before offering any overt assistance.

Indeed, fresh, legitimate, and reinvigorated North Korean leadership—or a prosperous North Korean economy--may be the last thing China wants.

What I believe China wants is a North Korean regime that is profoundly isolated, helpless, and totally reliant on Chinese good offices to survive.

Right now, Kim Jung Il—and the United States and Japan—are pretty much doing China’s work for it.

For China, all that’s needed now is patience—and ruthlessness.

Beijing has offered North Korea no verbal consolation, either at the diplomatic level or in its media. Hu Jintao
dispatched a special envoy to meet with President Bush and, I expect, assure the United States of China’s sincere desire to put a lid on the North Korean nuclear program.

And certain Chinese actions are speaking louder than words.

The fence is going up along the Yalu to further isolate North Korea’s export trade—both licit and illicit--from the crucial Manchurian economy. Anecdotal reports in
Ming Pao and the South Korean press indicate that Chinese banks are declining to remit money to North Korea, and North Korean guest workers are not receiving visa extensions.

If North Korea detonates another device, all China has to do stand aside and let foreign investment and trade—the key to the regime’s survival as an independent nation—dry up.

Ironically, by this reading, the United States could profit from the estrangement between China and North Korea by embarking on a swift rapprochement with Pyongyang.

Instead , we are doing everything within our power to force North Korea under China’s heel and, in the process, perpetuate the existence of the same failed North Korean system—and regime-- that we have sworn to destroy.

Monday, October 09, 2006

North Korea's Fissile Dysfunction

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has not done its image as terrifying boogeyman of Asia any favors with its fizzled nuclear test.

Calculating a yield of a few hundred tons from the seismic data, Dr. Jeffrey Lewis pointed out that achieving such a low yield intentionally would be a technical challenge for even the most advanced nuclear powers, so Kim Jung Il’s weapon test on October 8 was almost certainly a failure.

However, the awesome power of the left-leaning blogosphere has been convincingly demonstrated…

...as it brought Dr. Lewis’ site, Arms Control Wonk, to its knees by an onslaught of links from the Washington Monthly, Americablog, Dailykos, and others.

I was only able to catch up with his post labeling the North Korean test a dud only when it was cross-posted on Defense Tech.org.

There is one assertion by Dr. Lewis that perhaps merits a rebuttal:

A plutonium device should produce a yield in the range of the 20 kilotons, like the one we dropped on Nagasaki. No one has ever dudded their first test of a simple fission device.

North Korea cannot even claim a first in the dismal realm of nuclear futility.

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Operation Upshot-Knothole, Test Shot RUTH, Area 7, Nevada Test Site, March 31, 1953:

RUTH was the maiden effort by Ted Teller’s outfit, the University of California Radiation Laboratory, Livermore, afterwards the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.

As described in Global Security's WMD dossier:

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory was less than a year old when the first nuclear-explosive device designed entirely by Livermore scientists was fired at Mercury, Nevada. RUTH, the Laboratory's first nuclear test, explored a new design for fission devices that offered hope for smaller, more efficient bombs and provided information about certain thermonuclear reactions. The experiment exemplified Livermore's commitment to be a "new ideas" laboratory. RUTH was fired on March 31, 1953—just six months after Livermore opened.

The device, Hydride I, weighed 7400 lb, was 56 inches in diameter and was 66 inches long. It was installed on a 300-ft tower, and Laboratory researchers stood back at the outlying observation station with their dark glasses on waiting for the device to go off. When it was fired, all that was visible was a small speck of light on the horizon—no mushroom cloud. Normally during a test, the detonation is seen about a minute before the sound reaches the observation station, and there is an announcement over the loudspeaker system warning to brace for the shock. According to Wally Decker, a young Laboratory engineer involved in his first field test, the shot went “pop.” The predicted yield was 1.5 to 3 kt, while the 200 ton yield was a fraction of that. As the dust cleared, dismayed engineers and scientists peered through their field glasses and saw the tower was still standing. As Decker walked away he passed a guard who asked in all innocence, “When is the sound going to get here?”

While Livermore researchers were trying to find out what went wrong with the shot, Los Alamos personnel were busy taking a picture of the barely damaged tower.

The famous picture—gleefully archived by Teller’s disdainful rivals at Los Alamos—is at the top of the page (the North Koreans lit off their dud today underground).

That didn’t stop Teller from trying again:

A few months later the Laboratory prepared for another event with a slightly different design, and chose a 100-foot tower instead of a 300-foot one. Like Ruth, Livermore's second hydride test, Ray, on April 11, 1953, also fizzled. The explosion, however, at least managed to level the bomb's 100-tower. The tower had an open platform and the device was set up on a blustery day around Easter during rain, snow, and a dust storm. To protect the device from the weather, a large canvas tarpaulin was used to cover it. The device was fired with the same dismal results. The guard at the site commented, “Gee, you shouldn’tve put that canvas over it.”

In passing, it’s interesting to note that the uranium hydride bomb was a solution that Oppenheimer had rejected at Los Alamos when he headed the Manhattan Project, but Teller thought he knew better--and also thought Oppenheimer was too quick to disdain this path to the small, usable nukes that Teller adored.

The failure of the uranium hydride bomb vindicated Oppenheimer, and this embarrassing setback perhaps fueled Teller’s paranoia and megalomania.

Subsequently, of course, Teller agitated successfully for the removal of Oppenheimer’s security clearance because, in his view, Oppenheimer had used technical excuses to dissemble a deep philosophical opposition to another cutting edge weapon--the hydrogen bomb.

One can only wonder--and worry--about what effect North Korea's massive fissile dysfunction will have on Kim Jung Il's psyche.

Certainly, it will undercut his swagger when dealing with the other acknowledged and nascent nuclear potentates in Asia.

It is interesting that the North Koreans were unable to master an implosion-type device.

To be fair, the North Koreans might have been trying to push the envelope on their first test—just as Teller did—by cutting back on the amount of fissile material used in an attempt to stretch their reserves of plutonium from the balky Yongbyon reactor to five bombs instead of the predicted four.

Even with a healthy amount of fissile material, implosion bombs are famously a difficult business to bring about, requiring a mastery of chemical explosives, hydrodynamics, metallurgy, detonation hardware, and initiator technology, etc.

By all accounts, the North Koreans have not received any significant help in weaponization (although training of scientists, reactor technology and plutonium extraction, and uranium enrichment are a different story), so they were probably pretty much on their own.

Nevertheless, the Chinese were able to master the weaponization details of an implosion device (the Chinese decided to go straight to implosion instead of gunning their U-235) in 1960-64 by themselves with slide rules, a few hand calculators, people mixing chemical explosives in buckets, and their advanced machining technology for shaping the uranium core: a mechanical lathe and a guy named Yuan.

Lewis and Xue’s China Builds the Bomb (pp. 167-8) provides this vignette:

One master worker, Yuan Gongfu, trained so hard…he lost more than 30 catties…But eventually became skilled in operating the specially designed lathes…[and was] authorized…to machine the ball of uranium.

As happened in other critical dramas during the bomb-design program, this one…drew a crowd of distinguished kibitzers. Vice Minister Yuan Chenglong and leading cadres from the atomic energy complex joined the entire workshop crew…Yuan, temporarily full of confidence, told them: “You can rest assured that we will without question succeed in maching the nuclear component to the required standard.”

All was fine until the uranium ball was put in the vise. Faced with this unfamiliar reality, Yuan lost his poise and became visibly upset. He suddenly appreciated the high risks involved, for he was machining lethal uranium, not ordinary steel. His work would determine the success or failure of a decade of labor by tens of thousands…A colleague, sensing Yuan’s stage fright, reminded him to start machining. That only made matters worse, and his increased trembling caused the uranium ball to slip in the vise. This of course, made Yuan even more panicky…
…Yuan appeared to have completely lost his confidence…

Soothingly, Zhu [Linfang, the head of the facility] told Yuan: “It will be no problem for you…”…He urged Yuan to relax for a few minutes, have a glass of milk, and then return. Even though it was now late at night, Yuan agreed and, back at the lathe, began again…By early morning…the nuclear core for the bomb was ready.

You see, Mr. Kim? Sometimes a kind word and a glass of milk is all that’s needed. Too bad both commodities are in short supply in the DPRK.

Maybe North Korea may have to switch to Plan B: exploiting its domestic uranium reserves, assiduously enriching uranium using the cascade of centrifuges it acquired from A.Q. Khan (I haven’t read anything that gives an idea of how many North Korea has, but the story that Khan used to fly C-130s laden with nuclear hardware to Pyongyang in the 1990s makes one think this is a significant effort), and try again with a gun-type bomb that will place less onerous burdens on its isolated scientists.