More than a year after Panamanian authorities uncovered a massive shipment of Cuban weapons on its way to North Korea, in clear violation of multiple U.N. Security Council resolutions, the U.N. and Treasury have finally done something about it. That something could contain the makings of one part of an effective sanctions strategy, but it will probably disappoint some powerful members of Congress in both parties.
As I noted yesterday, and after public criticism by former head U.N. sanctions expert Martin Uden that the U.N. had been slow response to the Chon Chong Gang incident, the U.N. Sanctions Committee finally got around to designating a single entity — Vladivostok-based Ocean Maritime Management (OMM), the shipping agent for the arms deal. The U.N. failed to designate other involved entities, including Singapore-based Chinpo Shipping, conveniently co-located with the local North Korean embassy, or any of the Cuban entities involved in the deal.
I wrote yesterday morning that the U.N.’s decision would probably force Treasury to designate OMM, and that prediction was proven correct within hours of my posting. Treasury also designated Chongchongang Shipping Company, evidently a one-ship enterprise, but it declined to strike at Kim Jong Un’s Chinpo.*
At this hour, there’s still no word from Vladimir Putin about whether he intends to comply with U.N. sanctions, close down OMM, and force it to move to Conakry or Dar-es-Salaam.
The more interesting part of yesterday’s Treasury announcement yesterday was treated as an afterthought in reports from Reuters, The Wall Street Journal, and Yonhap — the designation of 18 North Korean merchant ships. A cursory examination of NK News’s North Korea shipping tracker, however, reveals that this is a significant percentage of North Korea’s merchant fleet.
Better yet, one of the ships designated was the OMM-linked M/V Mu Du Bong, which sits stranded in a Mexican port after returning from Cuba. The designation signals that the U.S. government may ask Mexican authorities to search the ship, as I urged in this post.
The authority for the designations was Executive Order 13551, which authorizes sanctions against —
(ii) any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:
(A) to have, directly or indirectly, imported, exported, or reexported to, into, or from North Korea any arms or related materiel;
(B) to have, directly or indirectly, provided training, advice, or other services or assistance, or engaged in financial transactions, related to the manufacture, maintenance, or use of any arms or related materiel to be imported, exported, or reexported to, into, or from North Korea, or following their importation, exportation, or reexportation to, into, or from North Korea;
The designation of a ship makes it difficult for the vessel obtain insurance, repairs, fuel, and other bunkering services that it needs to operate. Similar sanctions have been reasonably effective against the Iranian tanker fleet. The inclusion of the vessels’ IMO numbers will make it difficult for North Korea to evade sanctions by constantly reflagging its ships, something it is notorious for.
The vast majority of North Korea’s shipping traffic is with China. It remains to be seen whether these ships will continue to ply their trade across the Yellow Sea. It will be worth watching that shipping tracker carefully in the coming weeks.
Expect North Korea to adapt by switching off the transponders on its ships. An interesting question I haven’t researched (but perhaps commenter David knows) is whether a U.S. Navy vessel encountering a Treasury-designated vessel on its way to, say, Bandar Abbas with its transponder and its lights switched off has a right to search it at sea.
In February, Hugh Griffiths and Lawrence Dermody of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute wrote a very interesting analysis of how sanctions against North Korean shipping companies could be an effective tool against smuggling and proliferation.
Treasury’s action raises the number of designated North Korean entities from 43 to 63, still far less than Zimbabwe or Belarus, whether you measure that in terms of raw numbers or the significance of the designations themselves. Yesterday’s designations closed that gap just a bit, and sent the message that at least North Korea isn’t absolutely immune from all its bad acts — just that genocide stuff.
If expanded, sanctions against North Korean ships could make it more difficult (but not impossible) to smuggle arms by relying on third-country vessels. And of course, there’s always Chinese airspace. If enforced aggressively, shipping sanctions could complement expanded financial sanctions to pressure North Korea and deny it one means to proliferate.
The Administration’s failure to designate any Cuban entities, however, will not please the eight members of Congress who recently signed a letter to our U.N. Ambassador, noted genocide-prevention expert Samantha Power, calling on her to push the Security Council to designate “Cuban officials and entities involved in arms smuggling to North Korea.”
Whether Power pushed for sanctions against North Korea’s Cuban vendors isn’t clear, but it’s clear the U.N. isn’t going to impose them. The Panel of Experts’ report on the Chong Chon Gang incident didn’t find the evidence against Cuban entities to be as strong as it was against North Korea, mainly because the Cubans didn’t cooperate with the POE, and because it wasn’t their ship that was caught in the act. But designating North Korea’s customers is important for the deterrent message it sends to suspected customers in places like Ethiopia, Somalia, Congo, and Tanzania that were named previous U.N. POE reports as suspected North Korean arms clients. It’s a well-recognized principle in the law** that when a party hides evidence, fact-finders are entitled to make adverse inferences about just what party is hiding.
Most of the letter’s signatories are members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. All but one, Rep. Albio Sires of New Jersey, are Republicans. Sires is also one of Congress’s strongest advocates of human rights in North Korea, and is said to be a close ally of New Jersey’s senior senator, Robert Menendez, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both Sires and Menendez are conservative Cuban-American Democrats.
(While I’m on the topic of Menendez, I have to ask whether the ultra-conservative bloggers who may have been taken in by a Cuban government smear operation against Menendez would really prefer to have Barbara Boxer as Chair of SFRC. Don’t get me wrong — Boxer has a great reputation on human rights, but on national security issues, she isn’t nearly as tough-minded as Menendez. For that matter, neither was Richard Lugar — not by a mile.)
The Chong Chon Gang incident was an opening for North Korea human rights activists to reach out to Cuban-Americans in both parties. The Cuban-American contingent in Congress is one of the most powerful on the Hill, and also includes rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio, and firebrand Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. And if powerful constituencies matter, last week’s revelation that North Korea is selling rockets to Hamas won’t help Pyongyang’s position on Capitol Hill.
The letter is the latest sign that Congress is increasingly uncomfortable with the pace of the Obama Administration’s enforcement of U.N. sanctions against North Korea. In light of these new developments, these members of Congress should consider calling for additional EO 13551 designations of the Cuban entities involved in Chong Chon Gang.
I’ve pasted a list of Treasury’s new designations below the fold.
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* The Editor preemptively apologizes for this.
** The obvious exception is that in criminal cases, no adverse inference can be drawn from a suspect’s invocation of his right to remain silent.