‘Treat North Korea as Criminal Enterprise,’ Scholar Argues

By Patrick Goodenough | February 13, 2013 | 4:39 AM EST

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attends a meeting of North Korea’s ruling party at a stadium in Pyongyang on Saturday April 14, 2012. (AP Photo/Kyodo News, File)

(CNSNews.com) – North Korea is essentially a criminal enterprise, and the world’s largest prison and slave labor camp and should be treated as such, a Korean scholar is arguing, as the international community mulls a response to Pyongyang’s latest nuclear test.

Dealing with the Kim Jong-un regime as a criminal entity rather than a normal state will target its systemic vulnerabilities, in the view of Lee Sung-yoon, a North Korea expert at Tuft University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

“It cannot survive without laundering money for its dangerous and illicit activities,” Lee told a conference in Seoul last week, as quoted Tuesday by American Enterprise Institute resident scholar Dan Blumenthal.

“The countries threatened by Pyongyang have in their toolkit the ability to treat the entire state apparatus as a criminal enterprise and can block it and anyone (including many Chinese banks and enterprises) doing business with it from engaging in transactions within the international financial and commercial system,” he said.

“Rather than pretending that they are negotiating with just another regime, the United States and South Korea should instead unleash a campaign to highlight just how abnormal and illegitimate the Kim family is.”

President Obama said Tuesday North Korea’s latest nuclear test deserves “further swift and credible action.” The U.N. Security Council met and issued a condemnatory “press statement” – a weaker response than a “presidential statement.”

The council is now working on a new resolution, although China’s foreign minister has already been quoted in state media as telling Secretary of State John Kerry on the phone that all parties should “prevent the situation from escalating.” Beijing has frequently in the past watered down U.N. texts on North Korea.

The most recent resolution on North Korea, adopted in January in response to December’s long-range missile test, said the council was determined to take “significant action” in the event of another nuclear test.

Resolutions passed in response to the previous two nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, did nothing to deter a third, however, or to end a standoff that has dragged on for almost two decades – despite efforts to resolve it including the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework” in 1994; the Sept. 2005 six-party “joint statement” on denuclearization negotiated under the Bush administration; and the Obama administration’s Feb. 2012 “Leap Day deal.”

Lee said that by treating North Korea as a criminal operation, the Obama administration could designate the entire regime a “primary money laundering concern.”

(Under a provision of the U.S.A. Patriot Act, designation authorizes the Treasury Secretary to direct financial institutions to enact “special measures,” restricting  the designated entity’s access to the U.S. financial system.)

The administration could also enforce executive orders signed in 2005 and 2010 that target entities suspected of helping North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program, subjecting them to a U.S. asset freeze and prohibiting any U.S. citizen from engaging in transactions with them.

AEI scholar Blumenthal called Lee’s recent remarks “a much-needed dose of reality about what exactly we are dealing with.”

“Rather than engage in diplomatic conferences that result in more North Korean extortion, more North Korean nuclear weapons, and more illusions that through combined U.S. and Chinese exertions North Korea can actually be persuaded (against all evidence) that the illegal possession of nuclear weapons actually has a price, we would be wise to consider Dr. Lee’s basic idea,” he wrote.

“Let's deal with North Korea as Dr. Lee describes it – a criminal enterprise whose crimes can and must be stopped.”

In 2005, one U.S. diplomat did describe North Korea as a “criminal regime” – and drew a swift rebuke from the then dovish government in Seoul.

“This is a criminal regime and you can’t somehow remove sanctions as a political gesture when this regime is engaging in dangerous activities such as weapons exports to rogue states, narcotics trafficking as a state activity and counterfeiting of our money on a large scale,” U.S. ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow told reporters.

Among those in the South Korean government who responded to the comments was then foreign minister – now U.N. secretary-general – Ban Ki-moon, who said countries involved in the nuclear talks “need to exercise restraint in the words they choose to describe each other.”

‘Threat to humanity’

In his recent Seoul speech, Lee also called for a campaign focusing on North Korea’s human rights abuses, led by the incoming South Korean government of Park Guen-hye.

“It should vastly increase funding for information transmission efforts into North Korea, encourage North Korean defection and reinforce resettlement programs, and raise global awareness on the Kim regime’s egregious human rights violations so that people living in democratic societies around the globe come to think less of the Kim regime as an oddity or an abstraction and more as a threat to humanity.”

North Korea’s rights abuses will be in focus in Geneva next week, when two survivors of Pyongyang’s notorious gulags speak at a non-governmental organization conference held on the eve of a new U.N. Human Rights Council session.

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a camp, spent the first 23 years of his life there, and witnessed the execution of his mother and brother; Kang Chol-hwan was imprisoned in another camp for 10 years.

More than 200,000 people are believed to be incarcerated in North Korea’s network of prison camps.

Last month U.N. human rights commissioner Navi Pillay called for “a full-fledged international inquiry” into crimes committed by Pyongyang, saying the human rights situation there “has no parallel anywhere else in the world.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow