North Korea’s arms trade flourishes as U.S. diplomacy falters

The latest U.N. Panel of Experts report is a bleak one for the U.N., and for an Obama Administration that seems content to outsource its policy to it. North Korea shows no sign of complying with the resolutions, and every sign of pursuing its WMD programs at full speed. Yongbyon was active for a while last year, and as recently as last September, there were signs of new excavation at North Korea’s nuclear test site at Punggye-ri. North Korea has improved its Seohae missile test site, tested a KN-08 engine, and fired off large numbers of rockets and missiles from its east coast.

By design, the U.N. can’t enforce its own resolutions, and governments’ enforcement of the U.N. sanctions is flagging. This chart from the latest U.N. Panel of Experts report should tell you most of what you need to know:

Screen Shot 2015-03-02 at 8.23.14 AMIn other words, most member states are less likely to have reported back to the U.N. on their enforcement of North Korea sanctions than they were to have reported on their enforcement of other U.N. sanctions. We’ll turn to why later in this post, but a number of anecdotes reported by the POE should give you a good idea:

– Iran (of course) has been shipping North Korean weapons to Yemen (most likely to Houthi militias). That would be consistent with Iran’s long-standing practice of buying North Korean weapons for Hamas and Hezbollah.

– Ethiopia, a longstanding arms client of North Korea, is suspected of violating the arms embargo to buy ammunition from the Korea Mineral Trading General Corporation, or KOMID, which has been designated by Treasury for its proliferation-related activities.

– Next door, Ethiopia’s arch-enemy, Eritrea is suspected of “arms-related cooperation” with Green Pine Associated Corporation, another North Korean proliferator.

I’ve previously accused Uganda of violating the arms embargo by hiring North Koreans to train its police, and apparently, the POE agrees:

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– North Korean-made 107- and 122-millimeter rockets have been found in the possession of rebels in the eastern D.R. Congo. The POE is still investigating, but Uganda and Rwanda are both known to have armed rebel groups there.

– The POE also updates us on the abortive sale by corrupt Mongolian military officers of MiG-21s to North Korea. The story has a happy ending: the sale was blocked, and the North Koreans never got their money back.

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The POE also reports that an unknown European state provided information leading to the discovery of “an air shipment” of “spare parts for Yugo class submarines that were procured in the United States market, for a military-related company based in South-East Asia.” Really? There are people in the United States who deal in that sort of gear? So where are the indictments? Maybe they’re filed in the same receptacle as Dennis Rodman’s civil penalty.

While we’re on the subject of luxury goods, the U.S. is in good company in its lackluster enforcement:

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There are certainly plenty of knowing suppliers, although the only guilty party these particular facts implicate is the one that the luxury goods almost necessarily traversed to get to North Korea.

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So while one part of the U.N. goes begging for aid for malnourished North Korean kids, another part of the U.N. can only point out that Kim Jong Un is spending freely on limousines, ski equipment, and yachts:

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Not even rule-bound Britain would (or could) make Princess Yachts answer the POE’s questions about selling yachts to North Korea. That’s typical: of 262 requests the POE sent out last year, asking for information, it only received 116 responses.

Numerous states also hosted offices of U.N.- and U.S.- sanctioned Ocean Maritime Management “including Brazil (São Paulo, Brasilia), China (Dalian, Hong Kong, Shenzhen), Egypt (Port Said), Greece (Athens), Japan, Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Peru (Lima), the Russian Federation (Vladivostok), Singapore and Thailand (Bangkok).” But more on shipping in a future post.

Then, there is the example of Cuba. It violated the North Korea sanctions flagrantly, yet neither the U.N. nor the Treasury Department sanctioned a single Cuban person or entity for it. You may agree with the U.S. policy shift toward Cuba, and you may not, but the U.S. was able to improve its relationship with Burma and still sanction Burmese generals for their arms deals with North Korea.

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The picture this paints is of a sanctions regime that few governments — including ours — believe they have to take seriously. It isn’t the job of the POE, after all, to enforce the law. That’s something member states have to do through their national laws.

The Ugandas, Ethiopias, and Chinas of the world have their own reasons for violating sanctions. They aren’t going to be persuaded to change their behavior the easy way. We can raise the cost of their non-compliance, but that would require political will. States that receive U.S. aid may find themselves denied aid one day under Section 203 of the NKSEA, and the bureaucrats responsible for arms deals with North Korea could have their assets blocked. In the case of China, forcing change will require a combination of credible threats and face-saving diplomacy.

Other governments are probably more passive and persuadable, but they might reasonably ask why they should be the only ones enforcing the resolutions. They aren’t necessarily looking to the U.S. for leadership, but because of America’s economic power, U.S. leadership would certainly sway many of them toward a global consensus of serious enforcement of North Korea sanctions. If forced to choose whether to have an economic relationship with the United States or an economic relationship with North Korea, the choice would be an easy one for most banks and governments. Right now, that’s not a choice anyone has to make. But if the U.S. doesn’t lead, who will? And if it doesn’t, who will follow?

Most people remember that the Treasury Department sanctioned Banco Delta Asia. Few people remember that top Treasury Department officials did much more than sanction one bank in 2005 — they launched a campaign of financial diplomacy to persuade bankers and finance ministers from Moscow to Ulaanbaatar to Hanoi to distance themselves from North Korea. It was multilateral diplomacy at its best, and it worked, until the State Department swallowed Kim Jong Il’s bait and undid all of it. What’s needed today is neither war nor appeasement, but some good diplomacy. Of course, all good diplomacy requires leverage, in the form of veiled consequences.

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