The Chinese banks in the N. Korea money laundering scandal skated. They shouldn’t have.

Yesterday’s indictments of the Dandong Hongxiang defendants, who are charged with willfully violating North Korea sanctions by laundering money for sanctioned Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, might have been good enough for 2009. They broke the illusion that China’s well-connected bag-men and bag-women were immune from sanctions. To borrow John Park and Jim Walsh’s expression, they meant that we’d finally begun to go after North Korea, Inc.

Unfortunately, this isn’t 2009. We’re now in a desperate race to disarm Kim Jong-un, one way or another, before the coming Korea Missile Crisis, before he can extort us into retreat and South Korea into one-country-two-systems submission. Those who think we can coexist with a nuclear North Korea are blinding themselves to what is flagrantly, repeatedly, and recently obvious — that he will not and cannot coexist with us. In Washington, serious men now speak of preemptive strikes. The appeasers will call for more deals, but we have tried them all. If there is still a chance to avoid war, that chance is regime-crippling sanctions that force the generals in Pyongyang to “stare into the abyss.” For those sanctions to cripple the regime, they will have to cause a liquidity crisis in Pyongyang by freezing solid the slush funds that pay Kim Jong-un’s army, secret police, elites, and civil service.

Just as they were in 2005, banks are the key pressure points. It’s the banks, not shadowy Chinese trading companies, that are most easily influenced to run away from the legal risks associated with North Korea, and that hold the bulk of Kim Jong-un’s assets.

Yet increasingly, the smartest experts on North Korea’s economy are speculating that China and its banks are being even more unhelpful than most North Korea watchers had imagined. Both Steph Haggard and Nick Eberstadt have raised suspicions that someone — most likely, someone in China — is subsidizing Pyongyang and actively undermining financial sanctions, as shown by the surprising resilience of its currency, even after the closure of Kaesong, and in spite of the fact that North Korea is nominally running a substantial trade deficit. The subsequent exposure of DHID’s role does much to validate suspicions that that support is coming through Chinese financial institutions, in dollars.

But this hidden source of resiliency is also a vulnerability. To Bill Brown, dollarization of the palace economy has helped Pyongyang stabilize that economy in the short term, but also contains longer-term dangers (I’ll let you read about them at his post rather than try to explain them here). The key point is that Pyongyang may be more dependent on the dollar than at any point in its history. Can Pyongyang adapt by further limiting its exposure to the dollar system? If that was a real option for Pyongyang, it would have exercised it either after the Banco Delta Asia episode or since then. As the Justice Department said, Pyongyang needs dollars because sellers take them.

Which is to say, China’s banks are helping Kim Jong-un win his race to nuclear breakout, and by doing so, they’re making a nuclear war on China’s doorstep more likely.

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Now that I have your attention, I must bore you with some banking law. If you just can’t stand it, skip ahead to the next section. I’m about to set the table for why the 12 Chinese banks named in yesterday’s civil forfeiture complaint — and the Bank of China, which was implicated in a criminal case in Singapore last year — skated, and shouldn’t have.

Under U.S. anti-money laundering (AML) law, banks are expected to know the law, the sanctions regulations, and enough about their customers to know who’s legit and who’s using them to launder money or break sanctions. They’re supposed to have compliance programs in place, including trained compliance officers to identify and report suspicious activity, and special software to identify blocked persons who appear on Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Nationals (“the SDN List”). A key part of this compliance program is called “Know Your Customer,” which is self-explanatory in principle but can be complicated in its application

If you’re interested — and let’s face it, you probably aren’t — the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, has published enforcement guidelines in 31 CFR Part 501, Appendix A, laying out a schedule of fines based on the number and amount of transactions that broke the sanctions regulations, and the willfulness and egregiousness of the violations. What’s slightly more interesting is that OFAC publishes its settlements against banks that violate sanctions laws. A comparison to how similarly situated European banks have been treated puts the Chinese banks (and Treasury) in a very unfavorable light.

OFAC has often imposed steep fines against banks that didn’t even violate the sanctions regulations intentionally. For example, in March 2015, Paypal settled a penalty case with OFAC for $7.6M after violating multiple sanctions regulations through “reckless disregard” in its sanctions compliance before self-reporting its violations. In August 2015, UBS AG paid OFAC a $1.7M settlement for 222 payments to persons blocked for terrorist connections. UBS AG self-reported, but only after learning that OFAC was investigating the payments. UBS had a sufficient compliance program in place; it just interpreted the law incorrectly, concluding that certain investment-related transactions on behalf of a designated client weren’t blocked (wrong). In February, Barclays Bank paid OFAC a $2.5M settlement for processing 159 transactions, totaling just over $3M, for a person blocked under the Zimbabwe Sanctions Regulations, masked behind entities that did not appear on the SDN list. The violation was the inadvertent result of faulty compliance verification software. The bank did not self-disclose. Either way, OFAC expects banks to have effective compliance programs. As excuses, bad software and bad lawyers won’t cut it. Self-disclosure mitigates the penalty, but it’s not a defense.

Willful violations, on the other hand, can be extremely costly. In March 2015, Commerzbank paid OFAC a $258M settlement for processing 1600 transactions in violation of the Iran, Sudan, Burma, Cuba sanctions regulations. The bank stripped transaction data out of the wire transfers to conceal their nexus to sanctioned persons from their correspondents. In October 2015, Crédit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank paid OFAC a $330M settlement for processing over 4,000 transactions in violation of Sudan, Burma, Cuba, and Iran sanctions regulations. Once again, OFAC found that Crédit Agricole and its predecessor banks stripped data out of the wire transfers.

The mother of all fines, however, was a record $8.9 billion (with a “b”) paid by BNP Paribas for years of willful data-stripping in violation of multiple sanctions regulations. OFAC’s penalty was so gargantuan that Congress passed special legislation (see Division O, Title IV, Section 404) to place $1 billion of that amount into a special fund to compensate the victims of terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks and some of the lawsuits against North Korea. A special master was recently appointed to administer the fund. (Thanks to the reader and lawyer who told me about this recently. I wish him a great bounty of contingency fees. Also, I’m in the wrong business. I do this for free, you know. You’re welcome, humanity.)

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In the case of the 12 Chinese banks named in yesterday’s forfeiture complaint, their AML compliance procedures were, at best, inexcusably sloppy. They serviced international transactions for shell companies that were registered in the British Virgin Islands or the Seychelles, and that listed fictitious addresses in Hong Kong office towers. Yeah, but who among us hasn’t done that as a youthful indiscretion? For those of you in the banking industry, the obvious answer is any banks whose Know-Your-Customer compliance programs do their due diligence and have kept up with strict new beneficial ownership rules in the EU and the U.S., especially since that whole Panama Papers thing, and especially for jurisdictions subject to U.N. sanctions and section 311.

And it’s not like much due diligence should have been necessary, given that Ma boasted openly that her customers were from “the DPRK elite group” and was an outspoken proponent of the trade that propped Pyongyang up.

To add further to the banks’ culpability here, some of the shell companies used the same Tortola, B.V.I. address as DCB Finance Limited, which was exposed for its role in sanctions violations when the Panama Papers went public (surely compliance software should have caught this!). According to the forfeiture complaint, “[a]s recently as June, July and August of 2016, nearly $8 million has transited through U.S. correspondent bank accounts related to three DHID front companies,” so some of this conduct is very recent. If nothing else, it adds more fuel to what Bill Newcomb and I have said about invoking additional beneficial ownership disclosure and record-keeping rules for North Korea.

In the case of the Bank of China, however, it got away with the AML equivalent of murder. Like Commerzbank and BNP Paribas, its employees stripped data out of wire transfers and willfully deceived their U.S. correspondents. There’s simply no defending Treasury’s failure to take enforcement action, given that BoC’s conduct was willful and egregious, unlike the other banks that simply got sloppy.

For OFAC’s penalties to be consistent, all 13 of these banks’ compliance officers ought to be collecting documents and reviewing affidavits with their lawyers right now. Instead, by saying that “[t]here are no allegations of wrongdoing by the U.S. correspondent banks or foreign banks that maintain these accounts,” the Justice Department sent a very different message to the Chinese banking industry.

alfred-e-neuman

That’s why tomorrow’s hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should not let up on what Senator Gardner and Senator Corker have demanded. They should not accept China’s reported arrest and investigation of Ma Xiaohong, its reported (and belated) investigation of KKBC executives, or its actions to stop North Korean trade representatives from leaving the country as signs that China is serious about enforcement at last. The DHID ships that have been impounded will be released in due course. A reported bribery investigation into the Dandong customs office that passed Ma’s wares into North Korea is self-serving from China’s perspective; China would rather package this as an anti-corruption investigation than admit that it bowed to U.S. pressure. China is not sharing information with DOJ and Treasury about its investigation, and U.S. officials don’t believe China’s actions are coordinated with theirs. More recently, China has lashed out at the U.S. for enforcing its laws: 

China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday voiced its disapproval of U.S. actions against the businesswoman, Ma Xiaohong, and her Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. a day after Washington announced criminal charges and sanctions against her and the trading company for allegedly acting as financial fronts for North Korean companies on U.S. blacklists. “We oppose efforts by any country to use their domestic laws to impose ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ over Chinese entities or individuals,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing, in response to a query on the U.S. actions against Hongxiang Industrial. [WSJ]

That’s some chutzpah, coming from a government that just unilaterally claimed the whole South China Sea and lost an international arbitration testing the merits of its claims, or that bullies Seoul with unilateral sanctions when the latter tries to defend itself from Beijing’s rabid dog. The real unilateralism is yielding to global consensus, voting for U.N. resolutions, and failing to enforce them. Unilateralism is claiming a sovereign right to misuse a distant nation’s financial system to break its laws and threaten its security. Maybe next time, U.S. authorities shouldn’t fly to Beijing to share their investigative findings, and all the sources and methods that approach may have compromised. Maybe they should just file indictments, freeze assets, and let Xi Jinping read about them in The Global Times. U.S.-China relations may have to get worse before they can get better. They may have to get worse to prevent them from becoming catastrophic. Predators need limits.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and given the long and sordid history of China violating North Korea sanctions, any claim that China has made a principled decision to enforce in good faith the sanctions it voted for at the U.N. should be counted as extraordinary.

Instead, we should take China’s actions as signs that Beijing will do as little as it can get away with doing, but will acquiesce to its enforcement obligations if we attach a high enough cost to its tolerance of North Korea’s violations. We should seek to divide the self-interest of the banks in avoiding penalties and maintaining their dollar access from the interests of the Chinese government, which is to make mischief, drive the Americans out of Asia, and end up dominating both Koreas by default. We should take note of reports that North Korean trading company executives fear repercussions for getting caught. The administration should exploit those fears and divisions, turn as many of those executives as it can, and find out what they know. Above all, it should heed the conclusion of C4ADS, the plucky little NGO that showed it how good investigation works:

With the right resources and political will, it can be possible to significantly disrupt the DPRK’s illicit overseas earnings, and in the process raise the cost of its brazen proliferation activity. As the DPRK grows increasingly dependent on its overseas networks, it creates an opportunity for the international community to leverage their financial intelligence tools to squeeze the regime’s illicit activity. While actors inside North Korea can operate with impunity, abroad they are subject to international norms. A single shipment can require significant documentation and effort, including maintaining corporate entities, processing cross-border payments, or acquiring insurance or bank letters of credit, all of which necessarily leave paper trails that can be followed. By exposing these risk points and peeling away the infrastructure of DPRK illicit overseas networks, the cost and difficulty of operating abroad could rise dramatically.

Following the money is likely to be the most effective means for the international community to coerce the Kim regime toward concessions and a cessation of their nuclear program. Getting there, however, will require significantly expanded efforts to continually investigate, monitor, and act against DPRK entities as they further evolve to evade sanctions. This report aims to build a foundation for this effort. [C4ADS]

A surprising finding? North Korea’s network isn’t really all that big.

A key finding from the UN Panel of Experts was the observation that “While [DPRK] networks appear complex, their key nodes consist of a limited number of individuals and intermediaries…. Although shell companies can be swiftly changed, the individuals responsible for establishing and managing them have remained, often for years.” [C4ADS]

I’ll give Stephan Haggard the penultimate word.

What these reports show clearly is that the “sanctions don’t work” litany is deeply misleading. This trope assumes a hardy North Korean regime ready to resist any pressure no matter how intense. That is simply not the story; rather, the story is that North Korea has not been forced to make any adjustments because it has been able to conduct business largely if not wholly as usual. How does that show that sanctions don’t work? [WTT]

Yes, some Chinese trading companies may indeed run away from North Korea because of the DHID indictments. Those that don’t will probably jack up their commissions from 20 percent to 30 percent, which is itself a sanctions cost for Kim Jong-un. But any casual reader of U.N. Panel of Experts knows that North Korea’s network of enablers in China, though it is finite, is also much more extensive than this. If this indictment is just a beginning, it’s a good one. I have no objection to starting with smaller targets to scare bigger ones. But if this is all we do, North Korea’s network will recover quickly. One way or another, if we mean to prevent war, we must send a clear message to the Chinese banking industry that there will be no more business as usual with Kim Jong-un.

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(Edited after publication to include China’s reaction to the indictments.)

2 Comments

  1. Mr. Stanton, this (re)tweet

    https://twitter.com/MichaelRWarren/status/780804904407470083

    at your Twitter feed really explains everything. I don’t know whose company the pleasure of which Sen. Gardner and Sen. Corker requested at Senate Foreign Relations today, but they need to immediately order U.S. Marshals after Secretary Kerry to drag him in. They need to swear him out, sit him down, and ask him

    1) Who the fuck invented this policy objective?

    2) What is the justification for this policy objective?

    and after he doubletalks for one or two hours with his mighty lawyer lungs, they need to order him over to a Nork Empire collapse objective, effective immediately . . .

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