Frequent Flyer Diplomacy and the Plane to Pyongyang

Secretary of State John Kerry needs to pay Kim Jong Un a visit. Because North Korea is muscling up and the Obama administration's "strategic patience" isn't working.

John Kerry is often accused of "frequent flyer" diplomacy. Now, every secretary of state has been accused of relying too much on travel except for, of course, those secretaries who have been criticized for traveling too little. They can't win either way. Taking criticism for travel schedules is as old as Dwight D. Eisenhower telling his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles: "Don't just do something, Foster; stand there." There is a reason that the State Department publishes a "Travels of the Secretary" volume and modern cabinet memoirs are little more than limp travelogues masquerading as policy tomes. (Oh, really, you got past page 33 of Clinton's Hard Choices? Liar.)

But, even by modern standards, this sentence about the power of Kerry's mere presence to bring order to chaos is a real howler: "And you will notice," Kerry said in July, "since the visit last year, North Korea has been quieter." The visit to which the secretary was referring is none other than his own April 2013 trip to Beijing. There are two wondrous things about this statement. The first is the causal relationship Kerry infers between a couple of meetings with senior Chinese officials and the regional security situation. Here is how Kerry described his face-to-face about North Korea with Chinese State Councilor and former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi:

"And what we agreed to do is immediately bear down with further discussion at a very senior level in order to fill out exactly what steps we can take together to make sure that this is not rhetoric, but that it is real policy that is being implemented. And then I asked him to pass the dumplings."

OK, I added the last sentence. But come on; adding that detail only emphasizes natural silliness of the statement: We're going to talk really hard about moving past talking really hard.

Beyond the inanities of diplomatic briefings, is Kerry right about North Korea being quieter? Well, I suppose compared to the bloodbaths in Gaza and eastern Ukraine, Northeast Asia is a garden spot. But quiet it is not. So far, 2014 has been an unprecedented year of missile-related provocations by North Korea that will only get worse.

North Korea has launched more than 14 Scud and Nodong ballistic missiles on seven or eight occasions -- as far as I can tell I am the only one keeping a running count. This is far and away the most intense year of missile testing conducted by North Korea.

To be sure, North Korea has not launched its Unha Space Launcher (which the United States calls the Taepodong-2 ICBM), as it did twice in 2012; tested a nuclear weapon, as it did in February 2013; or threatened to launch the new long-range Musudan missile, as it did throughout the spring of 2013. Then again, there are still four months to go.

While it is easy to focus on Ukraine and Gaza, North Korea is making a lot of noise -- and it may get worse. Since March, North Korea has been complaining about U.S.-led military exercises. In March, Pyongyang's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) warned that U.S.-South Korean military exercises "would only compel the DPRK to develop all its steps for bolstering up its war deterrent and demonstrating it into more annual and regular processes." In other words, buckle your seat belts.

A partial list of significant launches from 2014 include:

  • Four Scud missiles on Feb. 27.
  • Four 300 mm artillery rockets on March 4.
  • Two Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles on March 26.
  • Two "newly developed cutting-edge ultra-precision tactical guided missiles" on June 26. Kim Jong Un reportedly attended the launch.
  • Two Scud missiles as part of an exercise to test "dispersion effect for striking individual and group targets of the enemy" on June 29. Again, Kim Jong Un reportedly attended the launch.
  • Two Scud missiles in a nighttime "combination of a sudden movement and firepower strike" on July 9. And, once again, guess who was there?
  • Five more "ultra-precision high-performance tactical rocket[s]" to greet Pope Francis on August 14. Guess who was there, too?

KCNA has continued the U.S.-South Korea incitement theme to justify the frequent test firings, arguing that recent tests "took place at a time when the dangerous war provocation moves of the U.S. and its allies have reached an extreme phase."

North Korea appears to be placing great emphasis on responding with its own demonstrations of artillery and rocket firepower. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin once called artillery "the god of war"; recent propaganda efforts by the DPRK suggest that's pretty much how the North Koreans see it, too. Early in the year, before many of the launches had occurred, the DPRK released a propaganda film best known among defense geeks for its brief depiction of a sea-launched anti-ship cruise missile resembling the Russian-manufactured Kh-35. The general thrust of the film is firepower -- nearly an hour of Kim Jong Un watching rockets and missile firings. The most, er, unusual part is a two-minute sequence in which a squatting Kim Jong Un watches a sweat-soaked all-female artillery team launch rockets.

North Korea's most recent test looks like a new missile. (I told you so!) Although the South Korean press initially reported that the launches on June 26 and Aug. 14 were of artillery rockets, there is growing evidence that the weapon is a new solid-fueled missile. "We have a problem with this new system," a U.S. official explained a few years back, "because it is much more accurate and survivable" than Scud-type missiles. (Scuds are liquid-fueled, which is a drag if you have to fuel them during a war. Think how impatient you get at the gas station, and that's without the U.S. Air Force trying to kill you at the pump.)

It is not clear to me that Washington is paying any attention to the pace of missile launches in Northeast Asia. The only reference to missile launches in departing U.S. special representative for North Korea policy Glyn Davies's July 30 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee was to note that North Korea had initiated the provocations, despite U.S. offers for negotiations to improve the bilateral relationship. Japan leads the only diplomatic efforts underway with North Korea, which seek to resolve the issue of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea. Seoul has its own diplomatic effort -- to persuade North Korea to participate in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon this autumn. (Or at least not to blow them up.) The United States has largely discouraged these efforts.

The U.S. policy, according to Davies, is "seeking to increase the volume" of the message that Pyongyang should knock it off. I have no idea what Davies means by that metaphor. But whatever he does, he might want to make sure to turn the volume up loud enough so Kim can hear it over the sound of all that artillery fire.

(Oh, and let's pause to remember the late Robin Williams, who, as usual, had the funniest observation on the sound of artillery, in Good Morning Vietnam.)

Things are about to get worse. For weeks, North Korea has been especially vociferous in demanding that Washington and Seoul cancel the next joint military exercise, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, scheduled to begin Aug. 19.

Washington and Seoul will not, cannot, and probably should not cancel the exercise. But they should be honest about what comes next -- the collapse of those limited diplomatic efforts by Tokyo and Seoul, followed by what pseudonymous North Korea expert James Church has called a "bad action-reaction cycle" culminating in "more artillery exercises, more missile launches, and possibly even a nuclear test."

(This seems really loud. Maybe Davies has an amp that goes to 11?)

There is something disconcerting about our allies negotiating with North Korea, when we will not. They surely aren't under the illusion that the North Korean leadership is filled with nice people or that the country is likely to change. But neither are they under the illusion that their neighborhood is "quiet" or that the current policy of scolding Pyongyang is working. It is clear that the administration's policy of "strategic patience" -- a term the White House hates -- has left a vacuum that Seoul and Tokyo are trying to fill. No one thinks this will change North Korea, but perhaps Tokyo and Seoul can advance their interests. Of course, we have interests, too. North Korea is holding hostage at least three U.S. citizens -- Kenneth Bae, Matthew Todd Miller, and Jeffrey Edward Fowle.

It's satisfying to say that we won't negotiate with such horrible people. It's certainly unpleasant to imagine sitting down to dinner with Kim's henchmen. But that's why we have diplomats (and, well, Dennis Rodman). North Korea is an egregious violator of human rights armed with nuclear weapons -- but since we are not willing to use force to fix that little inconvenience, we have to talk to them.

Which brings us back to our globe-trotting secretary of state. Here's the thing: This is one case where frequent flyer diplomacy can be very helpful. The North Koreans have long placed special value on high-level summits. That reflects both their desperate craving for legitimacy as well as a political system that centralizes decision-making. The United States and North Korea nearly reached a deal to limit the latter's ballistic missile programs following a high-level North Korean visit to Washington and a reciprocal Oct. 2000 visit to Pyongyang by then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright. It fell apart when then-President Bill Clinton would not commit to a summit in Pyongyang.

Although North Korea is unlikely to abandon its nuclear weapons or missile programs anytime soon, Pyongyang continues to crave high-level visits. That is why Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has offered to visit Pyongyang. Rather than prattling on about turning up the volume, it's time for Washington to offer something new: the prospect of a Kerry visit if North Korea resolves the abductee issue with Japan, participates in the Asian Games without incident, and is willing to release the American hostages.

It's long past time for Washington to put Kerry on a plane.

JUNG YEON-JE AFP / Getty Images


Putin's New Clothes

Russia’s president is nakedly invading Ukraine. Why won’t anybody say anything?

On the night of Aug. 14, the Telegraph's Roland Oliphant and the Guardian's Shaun Walker both witnessed, as the latter put it, "a column of [armored personnel carriers] and vehicles with official Russian military plates cross [the] border into Ukraine." It's not that this was anything out of the ordinary: Russia has been moving all manner of materiel into Ukraine for weeks, as the Interpreter has documented, all under the watchful gaze of U.S. and NATO satellites -- thereby establishing a new normalcy for what does and does not constitute foreign aggression in a neighboring country.

It was, however, the first time any Western reporters had seen Russia sending armaments next door, and the way the hardware was transferred was also noteworthy. A convoy of at least 23 vehicles waited "until sunset near a refugee camp just outside Donetsk," Oliphant reported, "before moving towards the crossing without turning off headlights or making any other attempt to conceal itself."

Vladimir Putin now seems to be relying on the Eddie Murphy "wasn't me" excuse, no doubt with the understanding that having a bald-faced lie exposed by independent witnesses matters not when the rest of the world seems unwilling to do anything about it. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the event a "Russian incursion" -- but not an outright "invasion" -- into Ukraine, proving once again that diplomatic euphemism is a handmaid to authoritarian propaganda. Lithuanian Foreign Minister Linas Linkevicius elaborated that "70 pieces of military equipment" disappeared into Ukraine overnight, which no doubt added to the unknown number of pieces already in the hands of pro-Russian separatists -- though how many pieces are still intact remains unclear as of this writing. According to Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, a "significant" portion of the Russian armored column that rolled in last night was shot up by Ukrainian artillery, apparently prompting Britain to summon the Russian ambassador in London. I don't care what Rasmussen will choose to call this: The word for it is war.

Note how well-scripted the entire convoy farce has been thus far. I wrote earlier this week that these white trucks, which at one point were flying Red Cross flags, were going to furnish a pretext for some kind of border skirmish or provocation that would allow Russia to declare that it had no other choice but to attack Ukraine.

Probably because they had nothing better to do, Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) issued a pro forma denial and claimed that, quite the opposite, owing to ongoing shelling from Ukraine, Russian FSB units -- presumably backed up by armored personnel carriers and trucks -- were beefing up on their side of the border. This was all necessary and proper, you see, in order to protect against what an FSB spokesperson called "the infiltration of armed people into Russian territory."

But back to last night's adventures. Oliphant and Walker were at the border covering the much-discussed convoy of around 280 white-painted Kamaz military trucks which, after changing routes and destination points, finally alighted in Kamensk-Shakhtinsky in the Rostov region of Russia, from which they intend to enter Ukraine via the Izvarino border crossing. This is not where Ukraine expected to receive the convoy (it had troops waiting in Kharkiv), nor is it under Ukrainian control any longer. Izvarino was used by Russia to transport the Buk anti-aircraft missile system with which separatists are said to have shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 last month.

Moscow insists that this is a purely "humanitarian" convoy, coordinated with both Kiev and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). The truck crews evidently offered to display their wares to curious journalists; photos of flatbeds full with grain, water, and the like have circulated online -- although a lot of the trucks appeared to be almost empty. Meanwhile, the ICRC, which successfully handled the delivery of Ukrainian humanitarian aid to Lugansk today, tweeted that Kiev and Moscow must "agree on inspection and clearance procedures and confirm strictly humanitarian nature of cargo." Yet news reports have suggested that the relief organization may have worked out a deal whereby the trucks will first be inspected by Ukrainian border guards and customs officials, and then driven in by a single Russian per vehicle who will be accompanied by an ICRC employee. (That said, we still don't know who's actually behind the wheels of these trucks, civilians or dressed-down soldiers.)

Also, in accordance with ICRC policy, Laurent Corbaz, the director of operations in Europe, said that there is to be no Russian military escort.

Which is probably agreeable to the Kremlin because the escort has gotten a head start on the aid anyway. Yesterday, nine Russian tanks were recorded rolling along the H21 highway in Donetsk, deep inside separatist-held Ukraine. Moreover, helicopters, military vehicles (some of them marked with the emblem of "peacekeeping forces"), self-propelled guns, the 9K22 Tunguska anti-aircraft system, and what looks to be radar components for more advanced surface-to-air weapons (such as the Buk), were all identified by journalists and plenty of Russian observers moving alongside or above the aid convoy while it rolled from Moscow to the border. The Estonian newspaper Postimees also published photographs of Russian BMD-2s lining up along the M4 highway, about 6 miles from the Izvarino border crossing. This is the infantry fighting vehicle used to great effect by the Russian Airborne forces (VDV) -- camouflaged as the now-infamous "little green men" -- in the March seizure of Crimea.

By now, Putin isn't even trying to make his motives difficult to discern. Without telling anyone, he sent a convoy said to be loaded with baby food, sleeping bags, and grain to the Ukrainian border. Then he dispatched dozens of military vehicles across that border to heighten tensions or lay the groundwork for some kind of confrontation.

The second act of  this stage play was never much of a cliffhanger: Now Putin is saying that his peaceful, humanitarian relief efforts are being hampered by wanton and outrageous acts of violence by the fascist junta in Kiev. The Russian Foreign Ministry statement: "We draw attention to the sharp intensification of military action by Ukrainian forces with the apparent aim to stop the path, agreed on with Kiev, of a humanitarian convoy across the Russia-Ukraine border." And here's the Kremlin propaganda mouthpiece RT with a headline that helpfully offers an ex post facto justification for Russian invasion under the masquerade of news: "BREAKING: Aid convoy to Ukraine faces disruption, may be attacked -- Russia."

So why all this now? Well, the separatists have been getting battered in the last few weeks, losing much of the ground they had carved out for their prospective "Novorossiya," a restored empire on the basis of ingathered Russian lands. (And where they have been winning, it's been directly correlated to evidence of renewed Russian resupplies of weaponry.) There has also been much plotting and politicking within the separatist leadership of late, which could just be business as usual for an inscrutable and self-cannibalizing movement, or signs that a Soviet-style purge is underway at the behest of Moscow Center. 

Yesterday, for instance, Col. Igor Strelkov, the Russian military intelligence official-cum-"Defense Minister" of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk (DPR), who had earlier in the week been reported seriously wounded in battle by Russian state media -- which was then denied by separatist channels -- resigned from his position. Or rather, Alexander Borodai, the now ex-prime minister of the DPR, informed LifeNews, a TV station linked to Russian intelligence, that Strelkov was "fine" but was being replaced with a new defense minister who happens to be nicknamed "Tsar." It later emerged that Tsar's real name is Vladimir Kononov, who's an ethnic Russian from Lugansk who's been fighting against Kiev since April. Borodai himself had been replaced days ago with Alexander Zakharchenko, a native of the Donbass region, yet still retains the title of "vice premier" of the DPR. Not that Strelkov was entirely removed from the ranks. He has now been put forward as a candidate for chief of the DPR's general staff, a position the DPR "Supreme Council" must vote on. 

What's noteworthy about these portfolio swaps in the separatist government is that the two biggest demotions have affected those with ties to the ultra-religious Orthodox Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeev, who was recently sanctioned by the European Union and Canada (but not the United States) for his role in financing the insurgency.

Malofeev is the founder of private equity firm Marshall Capital and a major proponent of holy war to conquer Ukraine; he has credited Russia's annexation of Crimea as "God's will" and blamed Kiev and Washington for the MH17 destruction. But more famously, he also once employed Borodai as his public relations consultant, as Malofeev freely admits. There have also been rumors that he employed Strelkov as his former head of security at Marshall Capital, a claim Malofeev denied to Russian Forbes, claiming that there is no security detail at the investment company to begin with. Independent Russian journalist Oleg Kashin also doesn't believe that this employment story withstands scrutiny and points out that the rumor got started after an anonymous party hacked and leaked a tranche of Strelkov's personal emails, one of them showing him boasting of his supposed affiliation to the billionaire. Strelkov's penchant for self-dramatization precedes him: He is, after all, a historical war re-enactor.

But what may be more credible evidence of a direct link to Malofeev is that, according to intercepts released by Ukraine's Security Service (SBU), Strelkov informed one "Konstantin Valerievich" (the second is Malofeev's patronymic) about an ambush attack on "three VIP cars" in the early phase of the insurgency, and the Konstantin caller identified the main victim as the head of the Ukrainian antiterrorist center.

As I reported earlier, owing to tensions between and among different separatist factions -- and also how these tensions were being manifest among ultranationalist invasion proponents inside Russia -- there was every indication the founding fathers of irredentism in Ukraine were cruising for a bruising. If Putin had been looking to professionalize or nativize his proxies, then the MH17 fiasco would have made clear the urgency of doing so. Again, it bears mentioning that Zakharchenko and Kononov are Ukrainian; Borodai and Strelkov are Russian.

So the foreigners have now retired (or been retired), just as Russia nakedly dispatches columns of armored vehicles into Ukraine, and stages a piece of pseudo-humanitarian theater to legitimate a more open form of warfare. This is win-win for Putin: If Ukraine declares war on Russia, he gets to ride in to save his faltering rebellion. If it doesn't, he keeps waging deniable "incursions" to send the rebels heavy machinery.

There's a Russian chess term that explains what's happening: mnogohodovka. It means making multiple moves at once. As ever, Putin is counting on his enemies not realizing this, and being multiple moves behind him.