Last week, I highlighted Andrea Berger’s excellent post at 38 North, calling for the U.N. Security Council to sanction North Korea’s third-party enablers. Berger named some of those enablers, but I’d like to name another one of the most important ones — the Hong Kong-based 88 Queensway Group, headed by one Sam Pa, also known by his birth name “Xu Jinghua” or any of “at least eight aliases,” each with its own matching passport. According to multiple news reports, Pa has extensive connections to Chinese politicians, and with its intelligence services.
The mystery over his origins may be related to his former career as a spook. “All his life he’s worked in Chinese intelligence,” one source told the Financial Times. [The Independent]
An FT investigation last year found that Mr Pa and his fellow founders of the Queensway Group have connections to powerful interests in Beijing, including Chinese intelligence and state-owned companies. [Financial Times]
On the web, you’ll find a lot written about Mr. Pa, mostly about his notorious business dealings in Africa. Most of that reporting focuses on what could be described, conservatively, as conflicts of interest. The Economist writes that Pa’s deals “appear to grant the Queensway syndicate remarkably profitable terms,” “would be depriving some of the world’s poorest people of desperately needed wealth,” and “may also have indirectly helped sustain violent conflicts.” These include close partnerships with the governments of Zimbabwe and Angola in their diamond mines, and with Angola’s oil ministry, via an entity called China Sonangol, that was “deemed so corrupt in 2003 that Citibank closed all its accounts.”
The routine need to bribe officials is not a deal-breaker for Queensway either. Chinese investigators found that Queensway’s leaders had bribed high-level officials in Nigeria and several other countries. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]
Queensway’s deals often traded Africa’s resources for promises to build infrastructure — promises on which Queensway ultimately failed to deliver. The exchange of Africa’s commodities for services has the additional advantage of avoiding the dollar system, and with good reason: the Justice Department and the SEC have opined that making a payment through a U.S.-based correspondent account gives them jurisdiction to prosecute non-U.S. companies under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Even if the feds never make an arrest, they can still forfeit assets “involved in” any predicate offense for a money laundering transaction.
Deals with Zimbabwe would be especially risky. Most of its top officials’ assets are blocked for “subverting or undermining democratic practices and institutions.” One of the Zimbabwean officials with whom Sam Pa has met, Happyton Bonyongwe, heads its dreaded Central Intelligence Organization, its internal security branch. In 2008, the Treasury Department blocked Bonyongwe’s assets for “political repression.” In 2011, opposition members of the Zimbabwean government cut funding for the CIO, but soon, according to The Economist, the CIO was “suddenly flush with cash,” and had “doubled the salaries of agents” and “acquired hundreds of new off-road vehicles and trained thousands of militiamen” who could then help “intimidate voters during next year’s elections.” The Economist adds, “Several sources who have looked at the deal concluded that the money came from Mr Pa.” According to Mailey, Pa financed the CIO, which paid Pa in diamonds, which Pa then smuggled out of Zimbabwe.
Pa and Queensway have also had extensive dealings with North Korea. According to the Financial Times, that relationship started in 2006, right after Treasury’s action against Banco Delta Asia, when most banks wouldn’t touch North Korean customers.
Shortly after establishing contact, Queensway representatives began making frequent trips to North Korea. During these visits, China Sonangol lined up a series of projects in North Korea, including the construction of a gigantic riverfront commercial district called “KKG Avenue” in Pyongyang. Sam Pa also procured 300 Nissan Xterra SUVs for Kim Jong Il’s regime, some of which had “KKG” inscribed on their exterior. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]
In October 2006, U.N. Security Council Resolution 1718 required member states to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to” persons providing support for North Korea’s WMD programs.
According to The Financial Times, however, Queensway’s North Korean partner was none other than the notorious Bureau 39 of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, via a front company called Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation. Both Daesong and Bureau 39 are designated by the U.S. Treasury Department for “engaging in illicit economic activities,” including drug dealing and currency counterfeiting; managing regime slush funds; money laundering; and luxury goods imports, in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. As Treasury noted when it designated Bureau 39 five years ago, “deceptive financial practices” play an important role in North Korea’s nuclear and missile proliferation, and arms trafficking.
In March 2013, after North Korea’s third nuclear test, the Security Council passed Resolution 2094, which tightened the financial due diligence requirements applicable to North Korea, prohibiting the provision “of any financial or other assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute” to Pyongyang’s WMD programs or other prohibited activities. Still, Queensway continued to send a stream of mysterious payments to North Korea.
A document request attached to a June 2013 Hong Kong court decision lists US$11,143,463 (HK$86,505,484) in payments from July 2008 to November 2009 described as “Budget for North Part” or “Kumgang Budget.” The records also describe almost US$2 million in “consulting fees” paid in relation to KKG during 2008 and 2009. [J.R. Mailey, 38 North]
In April 2013, Pa flew to Pyongyang on a charter jet. Mailey quotes a Korean-language report from the Naeil Sinmum that around this time, Pa “visited North Korea up to five times … to discuss the development of an oil field in Seohan Bay.”
Mr Pa struck a deal with Daesong for an eclectic range of North Korean projects, the Asian official says, ranging from power plants to mining to fisheries. Money started to flow — although it is unclear how much flowed directly into North Korea. A ledger published in a 2013 Hong Kong high court ruling in a dispute between some of Mr Pa’s business associates refers to Queensway Group payments including “Pyongyang city bus system”, “Korea airport”, “Korea: 5,000 tons of soyabean oil” and “exhibition sponsored by the Korean consul”. There are no further details. But the list of payments also contains references to KKG. [Financial Times]
In November of 2013, shortly after the end of the Kaesong Industrial Park’s six-month shutdown, Queensway broke ground on a new Kaesong Hi-Tech Industrial Park, which adds concerns about technology transfers to other concerns previously expressed by the Treasury Department: “Precisely what North Koreans do with earnings from Kaesong, I think, is something that we are concerned about.” Even a South Korean official has suggested that the new high-tech annex to Kaesong “could be a violation of UN Security Council sanctions on the regime.”
As recently as last year, KKG began running a new fleet of taxis in Pyongyang, collecting all of the fares in yuan, euros, or dollars. A taxi business working on a cash basis might have a utility beyond the income it earns. As with Pyongyang’s chain of overseas restaurants, it’s a “perfect vehicle” for commingling “legitimate” cash earnings with more questionable payments, to conceal the true origin of the funds.
In the end, however, it wasn’t Sam Pa’s dealings with Pyongyang’s most notorious money launderers that cost him. Instead, in April of 2014, the Treasury Department designated Mr. Pa under its Zimbabwe sanctions program, for “illicit diamond deals” that helped the CIO evade sanctions. (On the SDN list, Pa appears under his birth name, Xu Jinghua, and several other aliases.) Then, last week, the Chinese authorities arrested Pa at a Beijing hotel, in connection with a corruption investigation into the state-owned oil company Sinopec and a former Sinopec official, who also happens to be the governor of Fujian Province.
Why did Pa fall afoul of Beijing after a life spent as a loyal and well-connected spy and arms trafficker? One possibility is that Pa was attracting too much of the wrong kind of attention, and that his arrest was a demonstration for foreign consumption. Another theory is that “[s]ome in Beijing had long been vexed by the insistence from some African rulers that Chinese groups use Mr Pa as a middleman.” Whatever Mr. Pa’s personal fortunes, to this day, 88 Queensway and KKG are still not designated by the Treasury Department.