The Cable

Former top U.S. official: China getting fed up with North Korea

The Chinese government has changed its approach to North Korea and taken a tougher line out of frustration with Pyongyang, according to Kurt Campbell, the State Department's top Asia official until last month.

"The most important new ingredient [in the North Korea crisis] has been a recognition in China that their previous approach to North Korea is not bearing fruit. That they are going to have to be much clearer and much more direct with Pyongyang that what Pyongyang is doing is undermining Chinese security," Campbell told an audience at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies Thursday.

"There is a subtle shift in Chinese foreign policy. You've seen it at the U.N., you've seen it in our private conversations ... I don't think that subtle shift can be lost on Pyongyang," he said. "It's not in their strategic interest to alienate every country that surrounds them. I think they have succeeded in undermining their trust and confidence in Beijing."

In the latest apparent sign of Chinese discontent, Beijing recently rejected a North Korean request to send a diplomat envoy to Pyongyang, a South Korean newspaper reported Thursday.

China has long considered North Korea a useful check against a united, pro-American Korean Peninsula. But Chinese frustration with Beijing could eventually lead to a more dramatic shift in Chinese foreign policy that would change the state of play in Northeast Asia, according to Campbell.

"It's very clear [to China]: If this is a buffer state, what is it good for?" he said.

The White House has promoted a careful dual message throughout this crisis: The United States takes North Korean provocations seriously but doesn't see North Korea's actual military moves as significant.

"They're doing that in a way so that we don't have a set of circumstances where things escalate beyond a point where it can be effectively managed," Campbell explained.

Meanwhile, there are feelers out that might pave the way for a conversation with North Korea that might provide a way out of the crisis.

"Subtle messages have been sent in every corner and in every venue that the door remains open to dialogue," Campbell said. "We have to be prepared to be open to dialogue."

Campbell also revealed that there is one senior administration who prefers the term "pivot" rather than "rebalance" to describe the shift in U.S. attention toward Asia -- President Barack Obama.

Campbell said the initial use of the term "pivot" was later replaced with the term "rebalance" because some misinterpreted the word "pivot" to mean a turn away from Europe, which was not intended as part of the policy.

"I actually think the better terminology is ‘rebalance,'" Campbell said. "And of course, initially the response was very clear from the NSS [National Security Staff in the White House] that really the term that is appropriate is ‘rebalance,' so those of us who use ‘pivot' were sent to reeducation camps and works in the fields."

But White House aides' effort to erase the use of the word "pivot" was ultimately thwarted by their own boss -- Obama.

"The irony of this, after all of this reeducation, it turns out: Who is the person who actually likes the term and the concept of the pivot?" Campbell said. "The president of the United States."

The Cable

Will Putin’s friends be on the Magnitsky list?

Next week, the State Department is expected to release a list of Russian human rights violators who could be subject to visa bans and asset freezes in the United States, but Congress is worried that State will avoid naming senior Russian officials in an effort to placate the Kremlin.

The list is required to be sent to Congress by April 13, according to the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act of 2012, which was passed by both chambers of Congress and signed by President Barack Obama last December. Lawmakers and NGOs working on the Magnitsky list want the State Department to include top Russian officials and several close associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The State Department is using a narrow interpretation of the law, arguing that a higher standard of evidence is required for legal reasons. But some lawmakers involved in the issue believe the narrower scope is meant to placate Moscow.

"We want to ensure that the administration carries out the law in the same spirit that Congress passed it. We didn't do this for a press release; we did this because of the deteriorating human rights situation in Russia," said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA), an original sponsor of the bill, in an interview.

McGovern sent the administration his own list of 280 Russian officials (PDF) he believes should be included in the State Department's Magnitsky list. Many of them are directly related to the case of Magnitsky, the anti-corruption lawyer who died in Russian prison after allegedly being tortured, and some are close personal associates of Putin.

Yuri Chaika, the general prosecutor of Russia in Moscow, was included on McGovern's list, as was Victor Voronin, the head of economic counterespionage department of the FSB who was reportedly heavily involved in overseeing the Magnitsky case. Chaika and Vororin are both close associates of Putin, and Voronin's ties to the Russian leader date back to their time together at the St. Petersburg branch of the FSB.

McGovern also names Alexander Bastrykin, the head of the Russian Investigative Committee and college friend of Putin, Victor Grin, deputy general prosecutor under Chaika, Olga Yegorova, the head of the Moscow City Court, and dozens of other officials associated with the case -- all the way down to the paramedics and nurses in the prison where Magnitsky died.

Several NGOs have also submitted their own lists to the State Department with other names of senior Russian officials not involved in the Magnitsky case. For example, one list obtained by The Cable submitted by an American NGO named Mikhail Lesin, former Russian information minister, who has been sued in the European Court of Human Rights for various acts of intimidation against Russian media figures. Lesin is also the founder of Russia Today, the government-sponsored news network.

NGOs also want to see on the list Ramzan Kadyrov, the appointed governor of Chechnya, who the State Department itself has reported is responsible for a long list of human rights violations, including the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya, an American citizen, in 2006.

McGovern is not the only congressman concerned about how the State Department is forming the list. His concerns are shared by key sponsors Sens. Ben Cardin (D-MD) and John McCain (R-AZ), several congressional aides said, although those senators are waiting until the list is released before criticizing the administration publicly.

McGovern is not waiting, however, and wrote a letter March 26 urging Obama to create the list using a broad standard: a violator should be named where there is credible information that he or she had engaged in any of the activities outlined in the law as human rights violations.

The administration will only place Russian officials on the list if those officials meet the more stringent standard used by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) to justify asset freezes, as defined in the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA), a State Department official told The Cable.

"OFAC has to develop a legally supportable case about everyone who is on the list," the official said. "OFAC standards demand a case of evidence that can withstand challenge because they will be challenged."

The official also said that the list to be released next week can be updated each year and should not be seen as the final list.

McGovern told The Cable that the whole point of the list is to name and shame Russian human rights violators and that asset freezes are only the final step in the process to be applied to certain members of the list. By using the Treasury Department's narrower standard, the State Department could be gutting the power of the legislation, he says.

"The administration knows exactly what the intent of Congress was when they passed this bill. They are going to take the most limited interpretation and find ways not to put anybody on the list. If that's the course they want to take, they are going to receive some bipartisan pushback," he said.

The Obama administration resisted the law throughout its path through Congress and negotiated several changes meant to soften what it expects will be severe Russian retaliation, McGovern said, and is now trying to appease the Russian government by releasing a small list.

"I understand the political difficulty the administration might face, but if the administration were to take a limited view of the Magnitsky bill, it would be a wink and a nod to the hardliners in Russia that they won."

Getty Images