We've all seen photos of the slightly mind-boggling displays of North Korean propaganda known as the Mass Games. Here's this week's installment taken from Wednesday's event, which had special guest South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun in attendance.
And if you're like me and curious as to whether they teach new formations for each and every event, the answer is no. I stumbled upon a repeat from 2002 while reading up on recent games. Not that repetition makes this any less insane.
Earlier this week, Passport speculated as to why the mood of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il improved so dramatically from Tuesday to Wednesday during his summit with South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun. On Tuesday, Kim looked sullen and glum, but on Wednesday, he was all smiles, even asking Roh if he wanted to extend his stay for a few more days. Was Kim putting on a show for the international community? Was he happy about the agreement to end the decades-long Korean War, or relieved about the agreement to dismantle nuclear weapons?
None of the above. Knowing Kim is a film buff, Roh gave him a stack of DVDs of South Korean movies and television shows. One was "Jewel in the Palace," a television show about a cook for the Korean royal family back when the peninsula was unified. It stars Lee Yong-ae, rumored to be Kim's favorite actress. For a guy who loves movies so much that he once kidnapped a director and actress and forced them to fulfill his cinematic vision, it's a nice gift.
It's also ironic, considering Pyongyang prohibits DVDs from the South. Here's how the government enforces the ban, according to Reuters:
A routine tactic used by North Korean police is to cut the electricity to apartment blocks before a raid and then go to each home to check what is on video tapes or DVDs that have become stuck inside players.
The downside for Kim is that he's going to have to enjoy his DVDs on an old television. It was rumored in the South Korean press that Roh would present Kim with a flat screen TV. That idea was scrapped - the TV would have violated UN sanctions prohibiting luxury good exports to the North.
The summit between North Korea and South Korea took a strange turn today when news of an offer by the North's Dear Leader Kim Jong Il to extend the conference by two days emerged. The offer—quickly rejected by South Korean President Roh Moo Hyun—came a day after Kim greeted Roh coldly, seemed disinterested in the talks, and appeared ill. But on Wednesday, reports indicate Kim was in good spirits, smiling occasionally, and engaging Roh in conversation. See for yourself:
On Thursday, the two are expected to issue a joint declaration and unveil a so-called "mystery package," rumored to include plans for increased economic cooperation and a peace plan that could be the first step towards officially ending the Korean War.
Was Kim's improved mood behind the breakthrough and the invitation to stay a few extra days? Was he happy he had finally reached an agreement to dismantle his nuclear weapons? Did he realize he's in a tight spot with this Syria situation, and hoped a little hospitality might help his international image? Or did Kim ask Roh to stay because he's "a rittle ronery" all by himself Pyongyang?
A number of reports out of Asia today add precious little clarity to what is becoming a growing international story: Israel's alleged bombing on September 6 of nuclear materials of North Korean origin in Syria. First, South Korean and Japanese officials mysteriously said that the next round six-party talks to end North Korea's nuclear program, which had been scheduled for September 19, are being delayed. Japanese officials told the Associated Press they did not know why Pyongyang delayed the talks. However, AFP reported that South Korean officials said the talks were pushed back because the Chinese had yet to deliver 50,000 tons of fuel, as they agreed to do in February. An unidentified South Korean foreign ministry official said:
It appears the North's refusal is a simple protest against something it is not happy with, rather than to squeeze more out of the others.
News of the delay was unexpected, given Kim Jong Il's recent cooperative moves. It's also suspicious, as the most likely reasons for a delay would seem to be related to the charge North Korea was providing nuclear assistance to Syria. That connection was disputed by Joseph Cirincione here, but the story continues to gain traction in the British press, with detailed new reports over the weekend alleging the North Korea-Syria axis. On Saturday, U.S. nuclear negotiator Chris Hill didn't directly address the allegations, but told reporters the plan in any case was to press ahead with the six-party talks. On Sunday, U.S. Defense Secretary Gates neither denied nor confirmed the allegations, but said that the U.S. was watching both North Korea and Syria closely.
Then on Monday morning, Seoul's foreign minister dismissed any nuclear connection between North Korea and Syria. Granted, this could be an effort by the South Koreans to salvage the talks the progress made in the last year, and the upcoming summit between the two Koreas. But given the sensational quality of the reports—clandestine air strikes, dumped fuel tanks on the Turkish border, secret nuclear caches and such—this story is not likely to disappear.
I think we know what side of the burgeoning "bomb Iran" discussion Bob Gates is on. Speaking with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday, who asked about comments by Gen. David Petraeus about Iranian Revolutionary Guards bases thought to be supplying arms to Shiite militants in Iraq, the U.S. secretary of defense indicated that diplomacy remains the Bush administration's preferred approach to the Islamic Republic. My transcription:
Wallace: As the general's boss, why not cross the Iranian border to take out these camps that are endangering U.S. soldiers [in Iraq]?
Gates: Now, first of all, there's a question of just how much intelligence we have in terms of specific locations and so on. But beyond that, I think that the general view is we can manage this problem through better operations inside Iraq and on the border with Iran—that we can take care of the Iranian threat or deal with the Iranian threat inside the borders of Iraq, and don't need to go across the border into Iran.
Wallace: Let me ask you a more general question, because there's a lot of chatter in Washington now that the administration is more actively considering various plans to take military action against Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment program. First of all, is that true, and secondly, can you promise that the president will consult, will go to Congress for approval before he would ever take any such action?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about what we may or may not do. I will tell you that I think that the administration believes at this point that continuing to try an deal with the Iranian threat, the Iranian challenge, through diplomatic and economic means is by far the preferable approach. That's the one we are using. We always say, "All options are on the table," but clearly, the diplomatic and economic approach is the one that we are pursuing.
Wallace: That's on the front burner still?
Wallace then turned to another, possibly related subject of Washington chatter: the recent Israeli air strikes on Syria. Many analysts view the strikes as a pointed warning from Israel to Iran; some administration officials say they were aimed at North Korean nuclear materials. Gates was cagey:
Wallace: Let's turn to another part of the world. Is Syria involved in a covert nuclear program with North Korean assistance?
Gates: Well, I'm not going to get into things that may involve intelligence matters, but all I will say is we are watching the North Koreans very carefully. We watch the Syrians very carefully.
Wallace: How would we regard that kind of effort, both in terms of the Syrians and the North Koreans?
Gates: I think it would be a real problem.
Gates: If such an activity were taking place, it would be a matter of great concern, because the president has put down a very strong marker with the North Koreans about further proliferation efforts and obviously, any effort by the Syrians to pursue weapons of mass destruction would be a concern for us.
Something didn't smell quite right in Glenn Kessler's recent story in the Washington Post about a possible nuclear link between North Korea and Syria. It looked to me like déjà vu all over again. So I asked Joseph Cirincione, senior fellow and director for nuclear policy at the Center for American Progress, author of Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons, and a frequent FP contributor, to weigh in. Here's his take:
This story is nonsense. The Washington Post story should have been headlined "White House Officials Try to Push North Korea-Syria Connection." This is a political story, not a threat story. The mainstream media seems to have learned nothing from the run-up to war in Iraq. It is a sad commentary on how selective leaks from administration officials who have repeatedly misled the press are still treated as if they were absolute truth.
Once again, this appears to be the work of a small group of officials leaking cherry-picked, unvetted "intelligence" to key reporters in order to promote a preexisting political agenda. If this sounds like the run-up to the war in Iraq, it should. This time it appears aimed at derailing the U.S.-North Korean agreement that administration hardliners think is appeasement. Some Israelis want to thwart any dialogue between the U.S. and Syria.
Few reporters appear to have done even basic investigation of the miniscule Syrian nuclear program (though this seems to be filtering into some stories running Friday). There is a reason that Syria is not included in most proliferation studies, including mine: It doesn't amount to much. Begun almost 40 years ago, the Syrian program is a rudimentary research program built around a tiny 30-kilowatt research reactor that produces isotopes and neutrons. It is nowhere near a program for nuclear weapons or nuclear fuel. Over a dozen countries have aided the program including Belgium, Germany, Russia, China, and the United States (where several Syrian scientists trained) as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). If North Korea gave them anything short of nuclear weapons it is of little consequence. Syria does not have the financial, technical or industrial base to develop a serious nuclear program anytime in the foreseeable future.
Nor is there anything new about Syria being on the U.S. "watch list"; it has been for years. Unfortunately, this misleading story will now enter the lexicon of the far right. For months we will hear pundits citing the "Syrian-Iranian-Korean nuclear axis" and complaining that attempts to negotiate an end to North Korea's program are bound fail in the face of such duplicity, etc., etc.
The real story is how quickly the New York Times and the Washington Post snapped up the bait and ran exactly the story the officials wanted, thereby feeding a mini-media frenzy. It appears that nothing, not even a disastrous and unnecessary war, can break this Pavlovian response to an "intelligence scoop."
For information on the Syrian nuclear program that any reporter should have read, see the Web site of the Nuclear Threat Initiative.
UPDATE: Washington Post diplomatic correspondent Glenn Kessler responds via e-mail:
I think the world of Joe Cirincione. So I obviously take his concerns seriously.
All I can say in response is that I (and a number of uncredited colleagues) spent more than week knocking on doors of many agencies, seeking answers. No one tried to wave us off the story, including people who normally I thought would have tried their best to prevent us from printing it. I did note a number of caveats and explained that Syria never had much of a nuclear program. There appears to be a connection to the Israeli raid, which is now the subject of some of the tightest censorship in years. We will keep pursuing the story in hopes of providing greater clarity for our readers--and especially experts like Joe.
... more here from Kessler, who reports that the State Department's Chris Hill doesn't expect negotiations with North Korea to be derailed by this.
An interesting story in Israel's Haaretz newspaper about the recent Israeli air strikes in Syria includes this gem:
The New York Times said Wednesday that likely targets were weapons caches Israel believed Iran was sending to Hezbollah via Syria, a claim dismissed later in the day by the Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.
"This is blah blah. This is nonsense, this is an unfounded statement. It is not up to the Israelis or anyone else to assess what we have in Syria," said Bashar Ja'afari.
The number one ranked U.S. Women's Soccer team was very nearly embarrassed yesterday when they were forced to come back from behind against North Korea to tie 2-2 at the Women's World Cup in Chengdu, China. Football-ignorant Americans might be forgiven for not knowing that the hermit kingdom even fields an international team, but the North Korean women are actually ranked number five in the world. This is also not the first time North Koreans have distinguished themselves in the pitch. In a classic Cinderella story, the 1966 men's team tied Chile and beat heavily favored Italy to advance to the quarterfinals of the World Cup where they very nearly upset Portugal as well, winning many international fans with their aggressive style of play. North Korea's then-leader Kim Il Sung had these words of encouragement for his team:
Europeans and South American nations dominate international football. As the representatives of the Africa and Asian region, as coloured people, I urge you to win one or two matches.
Surprisingly, the normally effusive Korean Central News Agency of DPRK devoted only a one sentence blurb to the women's team humbling the country's greatest international rival. Kim Jong Il has also failed to comment. Dear Leader is known to be an avid sportsman however, having apparently scored 11 holes-in-one the first time he played golf.
Corruption in North Korea is shocking even to Chinese visitors, who are not exactly used to a clean government.
A Korean-Chinese who occasionally goes to visit his relatives described his usual experience: "They are so greedy. Officials take bribes in China, too. But perhaps nowhere in the world are the officials so hungry for bribes as they are in North Korea. At customs, they slowly go through the luggage and sometimes put aside a few things they like, and then they say that those things are not allowed into North Korea. This is the hint, and I have no choice but to tell them to take those things, some clothing or small items. And it is a tradition that everybody who checks you should be given some foreign cigarettes. Last time I took five cartons of cigarettes with me, and only one carton reached my relatives. All others I had to give away to the officials."
Lankov's real point, though, is that information about China, which looks to North Koreans "like a perfect paradise," is seeping back across the border. And those North Koreans lucky enough to make it to the promised land—be it as refugees or businessmen known as chogyo—soon learn that South Korea isn't the hell on Earth they've been taught to hate, but is even richer than China. This can't be a sustainable situation.
After many, many fits and starts, North Korea reportedly got its $25 million in frozen funds back today. Banco Delta Asia released the money to a undisclosed location, possibly a Russian bank.
The apparent issue holding up the transfer was that the North Koreans didn't want the United States to simply wire them the money; they wanted a private bank to handle the funds in order to confer a sense of legitimacy on the country's accounts. But no bank would take the reputational risk involved in passing along cash that could be tied to drugs or money laundering.
One thing the North Koreans will soon find out, however: Resolution of the $25 million won't end the country's financial isolation. As U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Wall Street Journal recently:
Once one of these -- once you are -- your accounts are called out this way in the international financial system, the international financial system is not readily available.
This is a problem for the international community as well as North Korea, however. Kim Jong Il's regime engages in nasty illegal activities not for the heck of it, but to make up for an estimated $1.7 billion shortfall (pdf) in hard currency. Now that the nuclear deal appears to be going forward, serious effort needs to be made to help the North Koreans understand that there are other ways to make a buck.
Illustrating his long-term intentions regarding the U.S. presence in Iraq, President Bush called yesterday for a U.S. occupation similar to that in South Korea. While he merely intended to convey the idea that the United States will be engaged there for a very long time, his choice of analogies gives me a headache.
The two occupations are completely different. In Korea, U.S. forces safeguard a clearly defined demilitarized zone, where their purpose is to deter a North Korean invasion. In Iraq, the occupation is not even close to being that straightforward. The front lines are everywhere, and even the Green Zone is becoming dangerous. There's no real threat of invasion, but there's also no single entity with whom the United States can negotiate. Also worth noting: There never was a Korean insurgency.
Even U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates exhibited similar delusions about the nature of this conflict earlier this month, when he said:
It's important to defend this country on the extremists' 10-yard line and not on our 10-yard line.
American football is about equally crude an analogy as the Korean peninsula. Once again, a U.S. official sees the conflict in terms of old-fashioned interstate war, in which the enemy must be confronted abroad, lest we be forced to battle him at home. Sorry, Bob, it's not that simple. Keeping up the fight in Iraq isn't likely to stop any potential terrorists—by all accounts, it's creating more of them.
I've known about the questions regarding the "supernotes"—brilliant forgeries of U.S. $100 bills—for some time, but until Tuesday's McClatchy story, I considered them to be loony conspiracy theories. But now the Swiss federal police have weighed in:
WASHINGTON - Swiss police who closely monitor the circulation of counterfeit currency have challenged the Bush administration's assertions that North Korea is manufacturing fake American $100 bills. [...]
The Swiss federal criminal police, in a report released Monday, expresses serious doubt that North Korea is capable of manufacturing the fake bills, which it said were superior to real ones.
Until Tuesday, this argument had been advanced by a German journalist named Klaus W. Bender, author of Moneymakers: The Secret World of Banknote Printing. Bender accuses the CIA of producing the bills—which is why I looked upon his tale with a jaundiced eye when I first saw it last year. (The McClatchy story doesn't explore the CIA angle, presumably because it would undermine the story's credibility.)
In any case, the Swiss report as relayed by McClatchy may not be loony, but it's no more convincing than Bender. The U.S. government never accused North Korea of pulling off this counterfeiting scheme all by itself, as you can see from this Congressional Research Service report (pdf). Rather, the allegation was that there was a network, as this LA Times article from 2005 explains:
U.S. authorities have unsealed hundreds of pages of documents in support of the cases in recent months, including an indictment that directly accuses North Korea of making the counterfeit bills ... The documents paint a portrait of an extensive criminal network involving North Korean diplomats and officials, Chinese gangsters and other organized crime syndicates, prominent Asian banks, Irish guerrillas and an alleged ex-KGB agent.
Also worth noting, from the CRS report: The Chinese government and South Korean government, too, believe that North Korea is involved in counterfeiting. Are they, along with the Treasury Department, supposed to be in on the CIA plot? And finally, if North Korea can produce and test a nuclear weapon, why shouldn't they be able to make fake $100 bills? It's not exactly rocket science.
It's been a bad press cycle for Wachovia. First, news broke that the North Carolina-based bank was considering pitching in to salvage the U.S.-North Korea nuclear deal by agreeing to be the transit point for a $25 million hot potato—impounded funds that no bank seems to want to take, but that are crucial for the deal's success. Why would Wachovia want to be helpful, when its reputation could be severely damaged by accepting tainted money?
Interestingly, news broke on Friday that, along with seven other banks, Wachovia has been subpoened as part of what Bloomberg News is calling "the widest criminal investigation ever of the municipal bond market." There is no indication that Wachovia has been accused of wrongdoing yet, but according to the story, there may be some smoke there:
Federal investigators are probing whether Wall Street banks and financial advisers conspired to rig the bidding for the investments that local governments buy with some of the $400 billion raised each year by selling municipal bonds. The regulators also sought information on complex derivatives, financial products that derive their value from underlying bonds, an aspect of the investigation highlighted by the California documents.
Wachovia also got some extremely unfavorable coverage in this infuriating New York Times story about how elderly Americans are allegedly being scammed by thieves who purchase information legally from infoUSA, a company that sell consumer data:
As Mr. Guthrie sat home alone — surrounded by his Purple Heart medal, photos of eight children and mementos of a wife who was buried nine years earlier — the telephone rang day and night. After criminals tricked him into revealing his banking information, they went to Wachovia, the nation’s fourth-largest bank, and raided his account, according to banking records. [...]
Although some companies, including Wachovia, have made refunds to victims who have complained, neither that bank nor infoUSA stopped working with criminals even after executives were warned that they were aiding continuing crimes, according to government investigators. Instead, those companies collected millions of dollars in fees from scam artists. (Neither company has been formally accused of wrongdoing by the authorities.)
Much more detail at the link.
Any connections to be made between these stories are left as an exercise to the reader.
Back in April, amid speculation that Vice President Dick Cheney had lost influence within the Bush administration, I wrote of the North Korea deal:
Cheney, like Richard Perle and John Bolton, thinks the North Korea deal will ultimately fail. If and when it does, he'll be vindicated. That's why he let it go through.
Well, here comes former Ambassador to the U.N. Bolton with a big, fat, "I told you so" column in today's Wall Street Journal. Writing a day after a historic train ride between the two Koreas, Bolton crows:
Over a month has passed since sweetness and light were due to break out on the Korean Peninsula. On Feb. 13, the Six-Party Talks in Beijing ratified a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and North Korea, providing for Pyongyang to give up its nuclear programs. The first step, 60 days after ratification, was to be that North Korea "will shut down and seal for the purpose of eventual abandonment" the Yongbyon nuclear facility, and readmit inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Other steps were to follow, but the first move was unequivocally to be made by Pyongyang. The 60 days came and went, and indeed, another 35 days have come and gone. No IAEA inspectors have been readmitted, and not even Pyongyang claims that it has "shut down" Yongbyon.
I'm not ready to declare the deal a failure just yet. But you can expect Cheney to do so, and to use the situation to his advantage on other fronts—such as Iran, where he's been losing the policy fight to the State Department of late. (Witness the upcoming bilateral talks on Iraq between the United States and Iran.) Bolton hints at next steps in his piece:
How these issues play out will have ramifications far beyond North Korea, particularly for Iran.
Indeed they will. Cheney has hinted darkly that the United States may have to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, if only because Israel will do so on its own. Incidentally, 71 percent of Israelis "believe that the United States should launch a military attack on Iran if diplomatic efforts fail to halt Tehran's nuclear program." Military action is not necessarily on the table—few in Washington think that, at least for now. We might just see a more confrontational approach to Tehran, tighter sanctions, less willingness to offer incentives, etc. The point is, if you think the hawks have completely lost this argument, think again. Of course, if U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill manages to get the North Korea deal back on track, Iran will then be State's game to lose.
It seems North Koreans love telling George W. Bush jokes. Or at least North Korean generals imagine that a little ribbing at the U.S. president's expense makes for a good ice-breaker with their South Korean counterparts. At a recent sit-down between North and South Korean military officials, one lieutenant general from north of the DMZ opened up the proceedings with the following:
I recently read a piece of political humour on the Internet called 'saving the president'," Lieutenant-General Kim Yong-chol was quoted as saying in pool reports from the talks.
He then retold the old yarn about Bush who goes out jogging one morning and, preoccupied with international affairs, fails to notice that a car is heading straight at him.
A group of schoolchildren pull the president away just in time, saving his life, and a grateful Bush offers them anything they want in the world as a reward.
"We want a place reserved for us at Arlington Memorial Cemetery," say the children.
"Why is that?" he asks.
"Because our parents will kill us if they find out what we've done."
Wow. With that kind of humor, it's hard to believe Kim Jong Il's haircut has escaped domestic ridicule for so long.
North Korea seems to be back to its old tricks. Saturday's deadline for the country to "shut down and seal" the Yongbyon reactor, in accordance with the February deal to halt and eventually roll back the North Korean nuclear program, came and went—without even an official acknowledgment.
The deal has recently been stalled over the release of funds linked to North Korea totaling around $25 million, which are held in accounts at Banco Delta Asia in Macao. The United States, in what many saw as a significant concession, had previously green-lighted the unfreezing of the funds in hopes that the February deal would go forward. To save face, the United States demanded that the funds be used only for humanitarian purposes.
The Bush administration has now given up that demand, following the "enormously complicated" legal maneuvering required to release the money. This further concession could have been intended as an incentive for North Korea to move faster. It could also have been a nod to the inevitable, since the funds are controlled by a dizzying array of entities in North Korea; tracking them after their release would have been near impossible. In either case, it reveals just how weak the U.S. negotiating position is these days.
Interestingly, although the United States claims the funds were freed for collection last week, North Korea said on Friday that it would soon check whether it could access the money in Macau. Though unclear, this strongly implies the North Koreans had not checked already. It also indicates a surprising lack of urgency on their part, given how fiercely they fought to recover the money. Granted, the North Koreans did previously say they would freeze Yongbyon thirty days after the Macao funds were unfrozen (Saturday was the deadline under the original February agreement), but the Bush administration quickly rejected that position.
This incident also highlight's China's critical role: Beijing has asked for patience with North Korea. So, lacking better options, we wait.
Known to his ideological adversaries as "The Prince of Darkness," the American Enterprise Institute's Richard Perle has been vilified as the leading cheerleader for the Iraq War. But he's not sorry for having supported the invasion; he's sorry the Bush administration has botched a good idea so badly. In a rare interview with FP, Perle sounds off about neoconservatism, Iraq and the remaining members of the Axis of Evil—and how he would stop them. Check it out.
Buried in Saturday's New York Times profile of Rudy Giuliani, Republican candidate for president and former mayor of New York City, was this embarrassing goof:
At a house party in New Hampshire, Mr. Giuliani suggested that it was unclear which was farther along, Iran or North Korea, in the development of a nuclear weapons program.
For the record, North Korea tested a nuclear device on October 9, 2006, while the Iranians have yet to do so. The U.S. intelligence community believes Iran could have a nuclear weapon as early as 2010, but most likely in the time frame of 2012-2015.
I think it's time for Rudy to get new briefers. Alternatively, he could just read the newspaper every once in a while—lots of important information in there.
For diplomats with families, a posting usually goes something like this: Diplomat gets assigned for two, four, or however many years to Country X. Embassy in Country X helps get spouse and kids settled, networking to find spouse a job if s/he is allowed and wants to work, and finding a school for the younguns. The entire family usually goes abroad, unless Junior is off to college.
That's the situation for diplomats from all countries. That is, all countries except for North Korea. Earlier this year, the North Korean Communist Party revived an old regulation saying that diplomats can only take one child with them overseas. The regulation was suspended in 2002, but now is being enforced again. Officials in Pyongyang fear that too much exposure to foreign influences will cause diplomats to wave goodbye to their homeland. By keeping some of their offspring in North Korea, the government guarantees that its diplomats will think hard before defecting. Now comes news that some of these diplomats are refusing to send their kids back home, particularly at the embassy in China. Keep your eyes peeled to see if this leads to tensions between Beijing and Pyongyang.
Passport first blogged this story back in January, when it looked like North Korean officials had seized upon dog-sized rabbits as the cure for their country's persistent food shortages. Turns out they may have just wanted a meal:
A German rabbit breeder who sold 12 rabbits to North Korea to breed giant bunnies said he won't be exporting any more to the reclusive communist country because he suspects they have been eaten.
Breeder Karl Szmolinsky was supposed to visit North Korea after Easter to consult about breeding the rabbits, but North Korean officials abruptly canceled his trip. Szmolinsky believes that the reason given, that officials were unhappy with media coverage of their interest in the bunnies, is just a cover story:
That's an assumption, not an assertion," he added. "But they're not getting any more."
For a country facing severe food shortages, that's bad news.
As part of its recent agreement with the United States, North Korea demanded the release of U.S. $25 million in funds linked to North Korea at Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macao, which were frozen by Macanese authorities in 2005 following U.S. accusations of money laundering. The U.S. Treasury Department's response has been confusing; Treasury green-lighted the release of all of North Korea's funds even as it confirmed that BDA was of "primary money laundering concern" and barred all American financial institutions from trading with it.
North Korea, in a face-saving gesture for the United States, agreed to use the funds only for "the betterment of the North Korean people." The DPRK will have access to the $25 million after it is transferred to a North Korean account at the presumably more trustworthy Bank of China in Beijing.
It's not clear, though, why the Macanese authorities agreed to cooperate with the United States at all (technically, the decision to release the funds was Macao's), given that the U.S. Treasury's decision "essentially crippled [BDA], paving the way for liquidation of its assets." Macao's acquiescence to a deal that has damaged its reputation and torpedoed a Macanese bank—even after an independent Macanese audit failed to find evidence of illegal activity—is hard to explain coming from a supposedly independent territory. (Read the rest after the jump)
Joseph Cirincione, author of the brand-new book Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons and director of the Nuclear Policy Program at the Center for American Progress, has penned a hard-hitting new web exclusive for ForeignPolicy.com:
What once appeared the exception now seems the rule. Officials in U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration are gingerly walking back from claims that North Korea was secretly building a factory to enrich uranium for dozens of atomic bombs. The intelligence, officials now say, was not as solid as they originally trumpeted. It does not seem that the North Korean program is as large or as advanced as claimed or that the country’s leaders are as set on building weapons as officials depicted.
If this sounds familiar, it should. The original claims came during the same period officials were hyping stories of Iraq’s weapons. Once again, the claims involve aluminum tubes. Once again, there was cherry-picking and exaggeration of intelligence. Once again, the policy shaped the intelligence, with enormous national security costs. The story of Iraq is well known; that unnecessary war has cost thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and an immeasurable loss of legitimacy. This time, the administration’s decision to tear up a successful agreement—using a dubious intelligence “finding” as an excuse—propelled the tiny, isolated country to subsequently build and test nuclear weapons, threatening to trigger a new wave of proliferation.
According to yesterday's Chicago Tribune, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) may have funded Kim Jong Il's North Korean regime, a practice that went on for years and was only halted earlier this month. Every day, a North Korean official would show up at UNDP's Pyongyang office, pick up an envelope stuffed with cash, then go quietly on his way.
...we were being used completely as an ATM machine for the regime," said one UN official with extensive knowledge of the program. "We were completely a cash cow, the only cash cow in town. The money was going to the regime whenever they wanted it."
The Tribune article says that up to $150 million in hard foreign currency may have been transferred over the years, violating U.N. regulations that aid be given in local currency. Moreover, there was little to no follow-up to ensure that the money went to designated aid programs. And when UNDP officials were allowed to make their rare visits to projects that they funded, North Korean officials placed strict restrictions on where, when, and how those visits could happen.
In January, Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon ordered an audit of all U.N. operations in North Korea, to be completed by mid-April. However, the U.N. didn't sent out a notification letter that it was beginning the audit until March 1. That also happened to be the same day that the UNDP's Pyongyang office ceased operations, saying that it would not be able to comply with new guidelines issued in January that forbade it from making payments in cash.
The U.N. is constantly criticized—sometimes fairly, sometimes not—for its unwieldy bureaucracy, corruption scandals, and bungled communications. If it turns out that the UNDP was engaged in any kind of wrongdoing, it would be a huge pity, especially since it seems to be one of the few U.N. agencies that's actually fairly effective.
The new BBC World Poll of public opinion in 27 countries is out. Here are some highlights:
Israel has few friends in Europe. For the first time, the poll measured public opinion on Israel, and the results are hardly flattering: An average of 56 percent of those surveyed finds Israel's influence to be mainly negative. It's not surprising that people in Muslim-majority countries don't like Israel. But in no European country surveyed does more than 20 percent of the population have a positive opinion of Israel's influence. In only three countries polled—the U.S., Nigeria, and Kenya—does Israel find support among strong pluralities.
Europe doesn't like Iran, either. Iranian influence is viewed most negatively in Europe, though it does garner comparatively strong support in Indonesia (50 percent) and Egypt (51 percent). Only a quarter of the Indian and Chinese populations see Tehran's influence as positive.
Somebody likes North Korea? While North Korea is duly viewed as a negative influence by Europeans and North Americans, people in Muslim countries are far more positive about Pyongyang's influence. About 40 percent of the Indonesian and Lebanese populations, for instance, rate it positively. Asian countries were also more sympathetic toward North Korean influence, with more than a quarter of the populations of both China and India seeing North Korean influence as a good thing.
The United States is as unpopular as ever. Overall, an average of 51 percent of the survey's participants believes U.S. influence to be a bad thing. A higher percentage in Nigeria, Kenya, and the Phillipines views the United States in a positive light than in the United States itself. Notably, countries with the largest pluralities sympathetic to North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela tend to give the United States the lowest marks—suggesting that support for those countries reflects antipathy toward U.S. foreign policy more than it does, say, love of Dear Leader.
Many analysts have characterized the recent deal with North Korea as not much different from the "Agreed Framework"—the 1994 agreement that successfully froze North Korea's plutonium-based nuclear program for 8 years. But what do they mean? Below is a quick side-by-side comparison of major points of the Agreed Framework and Tuesday's agreement, "Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement."
United States was promised:
United States is promised:
North Korea was promised:
North Korea is promised:
If the steps listed above occur successfully, and North Korea declares all nuclear programs and disables all existing facilities, the United States and its allies will also provide assistance up to "the equivalent of 1 million" tons of heavy fuel oil.
Now, some context. First, North Korea desperately wants a security guarantee from the United States. While the prospect of attacking North Korea seems far-fetched to many Americans, the DPRK fears just such an attack. The United States promised to eventually provide a formal security guarantee in the 1994 Agreed Framework, but along with several other parts of the agreement, it never materialized.
In this 2007 "Initial Actions" document, there are no explicit security assurances per se. Instead, the United States will reassure the nervous North Koreans through talks "aimed at resolving pending bilateral issues." However, in the 2005 Joint Statement the latest agreement aims to implement, the United States did affirm that it "ha[d] no intention to attack or invade the DPRK with nuclear or conventional weapons" (emphasis added). This is still far from the explicit, formal guarantee North Korea wants, but it seems to be working for now.
Second, North Korea will only "shut down and seal" its primary nuclear facility at Yongbyon; the rest of its nuclear program will not even be frozen. Any other steps—involving, say, its existing weapons or other, secret facilities—are presumably contingent upon the United States and its allies meeting the terms laid forth so far. As Robert Gallucci noted, this agreement is an encouraging step on both sides. Even so, the road to complete and verifiable disarmament in North Korea will be long and arduous.
Diplomats from five capitals emerged in Beijing this week with what appears to be a long-awaited deal with North Korea. The trade-off? In the first 60 days, North Korea would give up its main nuclear reactor at Yongbyon in exchange for roughly 50,000 tons of fuel oil, or its equivalent in economic aid (Passport will have more on the specifics later today). The agreement comes exactly four months and four days after North Korea's groundbreaking nuclear test. Chief U.S. negotiator Christopher Hill, who seems to have won over some fans in China, called the breakthrough "a very solid step forward."
Not everyone sees it that way. John Bolton, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, has been the most vocal critic, saying that he would be the "saddest man in Washington" were President Bush to follow through on the agreement. To Bolton, among others, the deal is nothing more than a reward for Pyongyang's intransigence, a Pyhrric victory that comes three years, eight nuclear bombs, and one nuclear test too late.
So which is it? For this week's Seven Questions, we asked Robert Gallucci, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and the diplomat who signed the 1994 accord with North Korea, to weigh in with his thoughts on this very early agreement. His take?
We now are in a situation where we’re saying, “OK, we’ll go step by step with [North Korea]. We’ll provide some of the benefits you want, and you’ll provide some of the restraint that we want.” So we are on a track now that could lead to the ultimate dismantlement of their nuclear weapons programs. It’s a new and better position to be in.
Check out the entire interview here.
Ladies in Beijing have a new heartthrob and it's ... drum roll, please ... U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Chris Hill. Reports the AP, under the headline, "Chinese girls enamored by boyish US envoy":
He's so charming and attractive," said Li Kenna, a desk clerk at the five-star hotel Hill stays at in Beijing. "He sometimes asks me how I am in the mornings," she said. "He's one of our nicest guests."
And you thought policy wonks could only get girls in Washington.
When not busy developing nuclear weapons or purchasing oversized garden animals, Kim Jong Il uses his spare time to cultivate a "robust" animation industry in North Korea. It ain't exactly Warner Bros.—the cartoons are designed to "implant into the minds of children warm patriotism and towering hatred for the enemy," according to official news agency KCNA. I'm not sure if that's also the underlying message in today's Thursday Video, episode 27 of the hit series A Squirrel and a Hedgehog. Politics aside, the technical and artistic skill is pretty impressive for a country that can't even feed itself:
The skill of North Korean animators is so well-regarded, in fact, that South Korean studios often farm out work to them. The industry is one of the few legitimate sources of foreign currency for Kim Jong Il's rogue regime.
Even more advanced computer animation is sometimes done in the hermit kingdom. As early as 2002 North Korea was producing episodes of the popular Lazy Cat Dinga, a Korean series evidently inspired by the American Garfield. The cat's taste for delivery pizza and lazy indulgence mean the show hasn't been broadcast in the North, which of course has neither of those things. But in South Korea, Singapore, and Malaysia, Dinga has been the smiling face of one of the few exports of a very unsmiling government:
The 35-year-old son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has been enjoying the good life in Macao, the former Portuguese colony that's now the gambling hub of Asia. He's apparently been living on the island, which is located off the Chinese mainland near Hong Kong, for the past three years. He's been seen dining, drinking, and, of course, gambling away in casinos and at slot machines, according to a recent article in the South China Morning Post.
The government of Macao hasn't yet issued a statement on its North Korean guest, but it is in an awkward position. In 2005, Macao froze a $24 million North Korean account held at one of its banks, which made it look like the Chinese Special Administrative Region was cooperating with international efforts to rein in North Korea. Now Macao has to explain how the son of North Korea's bizarre leader ended up making the island his base of operations.
A couple of other bizarro factoids about Kim Jong Nam, the son of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il:
Faced with recurrent food shortages and a barely-functioning economy, North Korea has finally made a tough policy call. Did Kim Jong Il relax stifling state controls? Stop spending the country's meager resources on its military? Stop provoking the world community and return to the international economic system?
Of course not. Instead, he's invested in giant bunnies:
An east German pensioner who breeds rabbits the size of dogs has been asked by North Korea to help set up a big bunny farm to alleviate food shortages in the communist country. Now journalists and rabbit gourmets from around the world are thumping at his door. [...]
Szmolinsky, 67, from the eastern town of Eberswalde near Berlin, recalls how the North Korean embassy approached his regional breeding federation and enquired whether it might be willing to sell some rabbits to set up a breeding farm in North Korea. He was the natural choice for the job.
"They'll be used to help feed the population," Szmolinsky told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "I've sent them 12 rabbits so far, they're in a petting zoo for now. I'll be travelling to North Korea in April to advise them on how to set up a breeding farm. A delegation was here and I've already given them a book of tips."
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