The main headlines that will come of the U.N. Panel of Experts’ new report on the enforcement of North Korea sanctions will mostly cover the Chong Chon Gang incident — the large amount of weapons seized, the brazenness of its deception, and the complexity of its corporate and financial links to entities operating from Russia, Singapore, and China. There has been relatively little attention paid to the newly revealed evidence that North Korea has helped Syria and Iran arm terrorists. In this post, I’ll discuss some other important conclusions we can draw about the enforcement of UNSCR 2094 a year after its adoption.
1. North Korea is still making a lot of money selling weapons.
In case you doubted it, the latest POE report finds that North Korea “remains … actively engaged in trade in arms and related materiel in violation of” U.N. Security Council resolutions, and concludes, “[T]here is no question that it is one of the country’s most profitable revenue sources.” How profitable? The POE doesn’t pretend to know and “doubts that all existing illicit cooperation has been identified,” but something is paying for all that
rice and baby formula ski lift equipment. There has been a construction boom in Pyongyang recently, and those who know how Kim Jong Un is paying for it aren’t saying.
Clearly, North Korea is doing a brisk trade in weapons, mostly with Africa and the Middle East. Paragraphs 90 to 115 of the report recount a long series of reports of North Korean arms smuggling — everything from the fuzes in rockets fired at Israel to specialized alloys to submarine parts to gas masks — that the POE is either still investigating, or found out about after the fact and by happenstance. It’s obvious that the sanctions are leaky, and the U.N. POE admits it.
That’s why I can only shake my head when the Foreign Minister of Korea says that the POE report shows that “relatively successful in restricting the country’s ability to raise funds.” The statement could only mean two things: either he didn’t read the report, or South Korea isn’t serious about enforcing these sanctions at all. I mean, just have a look:
Obviously, I can’t say what this construction costs, but it’s safe to assume it’s enough to feed a lot of hungry North Koreans. The POE doesn’t know how North Korea can afford to build two high-rise bank towers in Pyongyang, either, but judging by its inference about the arms trade, it’s fair to say that plenty of the money that’s paying for these buildings is illegally derived and laundered. This is not a picture of effective enforcement.
The report calls for no new sanctions, but once you read it, it’s apparent why: states aren’t even enforcing the sanctions that exist now. It says that member states already have adequate enforcement tools at their disposal — a point I’d quibble with — although it’s obvious that not all member states are using those tools.
2. China is violating North Korea sanctions — flagrantly.
China, naturally, is caught in flagrante delicto. The POE recounts the story of a trade show in China last year, when a concerned citizen spotted a booth festooned with a banner bearing the name of Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corporation, a subsidiary of a firm designated by the U.N. for proliferation activities, and an entity named on Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Nationals.
When the POE pointed that out, hilarity ensued:
149. In its reply to the Panel’s inquiry, Chinese authorities reported that Ryonha’s name was not on the list of exhibitors provided by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, nor did it appear on any booth before the fair’s opening. Upon discovering its presence, China requested Ryonha to withdraw from the fair and ensured that the relevant persons left its territory (according to Panel information there were at least seven Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nationals working on behalf or at the direction of Ryonha during the fair).
150. The Panel also discovered that, even though designated, Ryonha remained listed as a “recommended company and member” on the website of the China- Democratic People’s Republic of Korea Trade Network.103 In reply to an enquiry from the Panel, China responded that Ryonha had been removed from the listing.
At the end of the day, the POE wasn’t even able to confirm that the ChiComs had frozen Ryonha’s assets and seized the machinery on exhibit, as required under UNSCR 2094. Another North Korean firm, Leader International, still appears on Hong Kong’s official business registry more than a year after its U.N. designation.
Embarrassments like this will not cause China to actually enforce the sanctions it supported in the Security Council. Nothing less than sanctions against the Chinese entities that knowingly fail to enforce sanctions will do that. And because China would block those additional sanctions at the U.N., it’s up to the Treasury Department, which can bar those companies from the global financial system, to put some teeth into the sanctions now.
3. Other nations, including nations in Europe, aren’t taking sanctions seriously enough.
China isn’t the only member state that has failed to enforce North Korea sanctions effectively. Taiwan, in particular, has emerged as North Korea’s main new source of precision machine tools and related technology since it lost its access to the Japanese market. Plenty of states haven’t met their requirements to file compliance reports with the POE. Others aren’t reporting violations they find out about.
Notably, not a single Member State reported a violation of the luxury goods ban, despite the many violations that occurred at the Masik Pass Ski Resort. Even the U.K. failed to report North Korea’s attempt to purchase a yacht from a British manufacturer.
In most of these cases, the non-enforcement isn’t coming from the highest levels of the government, as with China. It’s a simple problem of member states failing to make enforcement a priority, or failing to reign in the profiteers in their jurisdictions. That’s a problem that could be dealt with through competent bilateral diplomacy in most cases, though sanctions and criminal prosecution should be options for deserving violations.
There is an another, more fundamental problem — what, exactly, are member states supposed to report? U.N. definitions of controlled items are often too narrow. For example, ski lift equipment doesn’t fit the U.N. definition of a “luxury good.” (Update: It does fit the U.S. and EU definitions.)
The same problem recurs with North Korea’s acquisition of missile parts. When the South Korean Navy recovered the remains of the last Unha-3 from the bottom of the Yellow Sea, it found that the rocket contained numerous foreign components, including some of U.S. origin, that were not on the U.N. list of controlled items. A shipment intercepted by “a Member State” contained parts described as being for “freezing carriers”and “fish-factory mother ships,” all of which were “spare parts or other items related to Scud ballistic missile systems.” Yet those items also did not meet “the criteria defined by the lists of prohibited items, material, equipment, goods and technology related to nuclear, other weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programmes.”
This calls for the POE itself to proffer an expanded list of controlled dual-use items, something that was (but for a few especially sensitive items) lacking in the POE’s report. (Update: If it wanted to, the U.N. could borrow or cross-reference the U.S. Munitions List.)
4. Existing financial sanctions on North Korea only show the tip of a big, dirty iceberg.
The best news in this report is that it appears to be the work of people who are intelligent, inquisitive, and serious about their work. They’ve begun investigating how North Korea launders the money it makes from its illicit activities:
166. During its mandate, the Panel commissioned an in-depth study to learn more about how the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea makes use of foreign-based firms and individuals to evade scrutiny of its assets, financial and trade dealings. It sought a comprehensive view of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s commercial footprint abroad to learn how entities and individuals that have figured in its investigations relate to this broader network and to one another. The Panel believes that an examination of those linkages would assist its efforts to detect and advise the Committee and Member States about others who might play controlling and supportive roles in evading trade and financial measures adopted in the resolutions.
167. [….] The study provided the Panel with a rich database of leads for further investigation. Starting with less than 500 loosely connected or unconnected individuals and entities that had come to the Panel’s attention during its investigations, the study found connections to an additional 700 individuals, more than 1,600 companies and nearly 2,500 corporate identifiers.
168. The results of the study show that the operations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea abroad no longer fit the description of “two persons and a fax machine”. Instead, it found a relatively mature, complex and international corporate ecosystem. Patterns that emerge from examination of the connections between identified individuals and entities show six large, discrete networks, all of which share links.
Other North Korean banks come under suspicion because of the POE report. A table at Annex XXXIV gives a list of banks known to be affiliated with North Korea, including those designated by the U.S., the U.N., and the EU. But among those not designated —
- The Ilshim International Bank “was reported to be associated with the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces.”
- The Koryo Bank is “possibly associated with Office 38 of the KWP.” (Office or Bureau 38 is the slush fund of Kim Jong Un and his court, and receives funds from the more notorious Bureau 39, which is in charge of laundering the proceeds of North Korea’s illicit activities by co-mingling those proceeds with the proceeds of “legitimate” business operations, like its overseas restaurants. The restaurants are believed to fall under the control of Bureau 39.)
- The Kumgang Bank is “described as a window of the Foreign Trade Bank,” which was recently designated by the Treasury Department for its involvement in proliferation.
- The North East Asia Bank is “[a]ssociated with the Korea National Insurance Corporation,” whose massive insurance fraud scam was the subject of international litigation and revealed by former KNIC official Kim Kwang Jin.
Curiously absent from the list is Sili Bank, which is based in Shenyang, China, and which briefly aroused international curiosity when it began offering e-mail services to and from North Korea, but which has no functioning English web site today. At one time, Sili Bank was the only game in town for anyone, including North Korean companies, to obtain international e-mail service.
Ocean Maritime Management, which the Washington Post describes as “a Pyongyang-based company with links to the North Korean government,” used a Sili Bank e-mail address to send a protest letter to the Panamanian authorities when they boarded the Chong Chon Gang and found a cargo of MiGs, MiG engines, missiles, and other weapons hidden under a layer of sugar. OMM, which arranged the shipment from its Vladivostok office, denied knowing of any cargo other than the sugar, which it describes as “essential for our people’s living” and “a cargo of humanitarian nature.”
5. Air Koryo is effectively an arm of the North Korean Air Force, and is involved in suspicious financial dealings.
North Korea’s General Administration of Civil Aviation, which is controlled by the North Korean Air Force and in turn controls Air Koryo, also lists a Sili Bank e-mail address. Air Koryo falls under the POE’s suspicion for a series of “dubious” debts owed to it by “recently formed shell companies” related to gold trading.
The Panel is suspicious that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be using or considering the use of precious metal sales on credit terms to create “accounts payable”. Such sources for funds would not necessarily show as being under its control and even could be swapped with other firms to further distance its connection and thereby better evade sanctions and enhanced due diligence by banks.
Because of its military links, the POE says that “providing financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, maintenance or use of Air Koryo’s aircraft” could be a violation. It will be interesting to see whether future POE reports confirm whether Sili Bank (a) still exists and (b) is knowingly facilitating illicit activities.
6. North Korea’s overseas monument business may be a money laundering scheme, too.
Finally, North Korea’s work building memorials and statues overseas has drawn its share of snark from bloggers and reporters, but the POE gives us cause to suspect that those operations could be used as fronts for money laundering, too:
Available media reports, particularly about projects in several African countries, note that project values appear inflated. Participation in overseas construction also takes place through joint ventures where a foreign partner could hold funds on behalf of or for the benefit of designated entities and prohibited programmes.
For example, if the Syrians wanted to pay for North Korean technical assistance with a missile program or a reactor while avoiding detection, they could commission the construction of a grandiose memorial at an inflated price. All perfectly legal, right?
If so, the POE should be wondering whether North Korea has recently made illicit deals with Zimbabwe and Namibia. Ironically, Zimbabwe once paid North Koreans to train their troops, who proceeded to kill tens of thousands of civilians in areas backing the Zimbabwean African Peoples’ Union, led by Joshua Nkomo. Today, Zimbabwe is paying North Korea to build a statue of Joshua Nkomo, and Zimbabwean dissidents have taken note.
A Christian blogger in Namibia also protests his government’s hiring of North Korea to build political monuments in Windhoek, when North Korea is rumored to be shooting people for having contact with Christian missionaries. (By contrast, nearby Botswana severed diplomatic relations with North Korea when the U.N. COI report came out.)