EU blocking of Korea National Insurance Corp. hints at key shift in N. Korea sanctions enforcement

The European Union’s administrative body, the European Commission or EC, has added seven additional designations to its regulation on “restrictive measures” against North Korea. The new designees include the Korea National Insurance Corporation, or KNIC, and six of its officials. There are several good reasons why the EC could have designated KNIC, but didn’t (the reason it did use is more interesting, but we’ll get to that later).

First, KNIC has been linked to Pyongyang’s luxury goods imports, which have been banned since the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1718 in 2006. Historically, most of those goods have been of European origin. The EC notice, however, does not link KNIC to the luxury goods trade.

Second, the EC designation notice says that “KNIC headquarters Pyongyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, a designated entity.” Office 39, a/k/a Bureau 39, the North Korean ruling party’s foreign currency-earning agency, is designated by the U.S. Treasury Department and the EC, but not the U.N., for financing North Korea’s prohibited WMD programs. The EC notice, however, does not say that KNIC is owned or controlled by Bureau 39.

Third, one of the ways KNIC has historically earned money is through insurance fraud. A former KNIC official, Kim Kwang Jin, revealed this in a 2009 Washington Post story, by Blaine Harden, and a 2013 Reuters story. The allegations of fraud arose even before Kim’s revelations, and led to protracted litigation between KNIC (on one side) and Lloyds and Allianz (on the other). The defendants alleged that KNIC had fabricated an accident to collect insurance payments from Lloyds and Allianz, which refused to pay, until the parties settled out of court. If the EC concluded that KNIC engaged in insurance fraud, that would also justify blocking it under UNSCR 2094:

“8. Decides further that measures specified in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply also to the individuals and entities listed in annexes I and II of this resolution and to any individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, and to entities owned or controlled by them, including through illicit means, and decides further that the measures specified in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply to any individuals or entities acting on the behalf or at the direction of the individuals and entities that have already been designated, to entities owned or controlled by them, including through illicit means;

The notice, however, does not accuse KNIC of fraud or other illicit activity.

Fourth, I’ve long suspected, but can’t prove, that KNIC is also involved in insuring ships owned or controlled by Ocean Maritime Management, a North Korean entity that was designated by the UN, the EC, and Treasury in 2014 for arms smuggling (specifically, for the Chong Chon Gang incident). OMM controls the ships through individual shell companies for each OMM vessel. According to this 2015 UN POE report, however, a different company, Korea Shipowners’ Protection & Indemnity Association, insured the sanctioned vessels. According to KNIC’s web site, however, KNIC is “a sole insurer of the DPR Korea” and sells maritime insurance. If the EC determined that KSPIA is a front company for KNIC, that would require the EC to block KNIC. There’s almost no information about KSPIA online, and nothing in the UN POE reports links it to KNIC. Anybody?

Unpack the language of the EC’s justification, however, and it doesn’t accuse KNIC of any of these things. It stops short of claiming that KNIC is controlled by Bureau 39. It merely says KNIC is funding the regime, and that those funds “could contribute” to North Korea’s WMD programs.

KNIC GmbH, as a subsidiary controlled by KNIC headquarters in Pyongyang (address Haebangsan-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, DPRK), a government entity, is generating substantial foreign exchange revenue which is used to support the regime in North Korea. Those resources could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes.
Furthermore, the KNIC headquarters Pyongyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Worker’s Party, a designated entity.’

I’m not complaining, mind you. The EC’s rationale is fully consistent with the language of UNSCR 2094, which raises the burden of due diligence that applies to transactions with North Korean state entities:

“11. Decides that Member States shall, in addition to implementing their obligations pursuant to paragraphs 8 (d) and (e) of resolution 1718 (2006), prevent the provision of financial services or the transfer to, through, or from their territory, or to or by their nationals or entities organized under their laws (including branches abroad), or persons or financial institutions in their territory, of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, or to the evasion of measures imposed by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), or this resolution, including by freezing any financial or other assets or resources on their territories or that hereafter come within their territories, or that are subject to their jurisdiction or that hereafter become subject to their jurisdiction, that are associated with such programmes or activities and applying enhanced monitoring to prevent all such transactions in accordance with their national authorities and legislation;

The EC’s action has significant potential to crimp Pyongyang’s finances and improve the enforcement of the Security Council’s resolutions. The blocking of Pyongyang’s state insurer will make it much more difficult for it to engage in air and sea commerce with Europe. It could affect Air Koryo, which has long been under suspicion by the U.N. Panel of Experts for being a de facto arm of the North Korean military. It will affect ships in North Korea’s merchant fleet that haven’t yet been blocked by Treasury, and will impede Pyongyang’s ability to access luxury goods from Europe. It will send a strong signal that Pyongyang can’t seek refugee in the Euro system to escape from sanctions in the dollar system. It will require Pyongyang to draw from its hard currency reserves to buy insurance on the commercial market.

But for all the material effects the EC’s action may have, the action may be even more significant for the analytical shift it represents. As far as I’m aware, this is the first designation based on UNSCR 2094–on either side of the Atlantic–that does not make a direct link between the targeted entity and a specific prohibited activity. Instead, on its face, the EC designation applies Paragraph 11’s heightened due diligence requirement to say that KNIC could be funding sanctioned activities. That almost certainly happens to be true, even if the EC doesn’t directly say so.

The EU’s action, along with President Obama’s signature of Executive Order 13,687, represents movement–however glacial–from conduct-based sanctions to status-based sanctions, a shift Treasury officials recently told GAO would make the sanctions much easier to enforce. That is to say, the EU and the U.S. are both moving toward designating Pyongyang’s hard currency earning enterprises simply because they’re Pyongyang’s hard currency earning enterprises. That’s necessary because North Korea’s opaque and deceptive financial practices–as the Financial Action Task Force has alleged for years–make it impossible for the bankers who clear the transactions to meet the resolutions’ heightened due diligence requirements. Two years after UNSCR 2094 passed, governments are finally enforcing it according to its spirit and its letter.

That’s why this burden shifting represents such a welcome change. In fact, it’s one of the most important shifts the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act was intended to drive. It’s also fully consistent with how governments everywhere apply their financial regulations–by sanctioning entities that engage in deceptive financial practices solely for engaging in those practices, even without evidence that the underlying money flows involve illicit activity.

Just ask Dennis Hastert.

Now, a question for your consideration. If the U.S. and the EU are shifting toward status-based sanctions enforcement and enforcing the requirements for “enhanced monitoring,” how will South Korea continue to justify the Kaesong Industrial Park’s opaque financial arrangements? As Treasury Undersecretary (and now, CIA Deputy Director*) David Cohen said:

“Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about,” said Cohen. “All of the hard currency earnings of North Korea are something I would say that we should be concerned about. [Voice of America]

The EC is acting on those concerns, and the U.S. has at least laid down a legal foundation for doing so. South Korea, a member of the Security Council when UNSCR 2094 passed and the principal beneficiary of the Security Council’s resolutions, simply refuses to acknowledge them, almost certainly for domestic political reasons.

Oddly enough, the EC’s action means it has designated KNIC, but that the U.S. Treasury Department hasn’t. The fact that European insurers were the main victims of KNIC’s insurance fraud may help explain this disparity. Still, as with the push for action on the U.N. Commission of Inquiry’s report on human rights, this is another case of U.S. “leading from behind” in holding North Korea accountable. It’s yet another disparity between U.S. and EC regulations that Section 202 of the NKSEA urges the U.S. governments to harmonize. If the U.S. won’t lead enforcement efforts, the least it can do is be a good follower.

Hat tip to Rob York of NK News. You can read NK News’s report here.

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* A previous version of this post said that David Cohen was the Director of the CIA. He is actually the Deputy Director. Thanks to a reader for bringing the error to my attention.

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