Treasury finalizes cutoff of N. Korean banks from U.S. financial system

After a long delay, the Treasury Department has issued its final rule prohibiting financial institutions operating in U.S. jurisdiction from providing direct or indirect correspondent account services to North Korean financial institutions. In English, that means North Korean banks are now denied a critical link for accessing the global financial system.

North Korea is now one of only three countries to be declared a Primary Money Laundering Concern by the Treasury Department, and is the only country subject to Special Measure 5. Under section 311 of the Patriot Act, the imposition of Special Measure 5 requires formal rulemaking — notice, comment, and publication of a final rule in the Federal Register — which explains some of the delay since late May, but not all of it.

You can read Treasury’s press release here, the Federal Register notice here, and also, press reports from Yonhap and The Wall Street Journal.

The skeptics will have several responses to this. The first, that North Korea is already heavily sanctioned, I’ve already debunked, and most experts who actually understand sanctions will agree with me here. The second, that North Korea stopped using the dollar system years ago, has been refuted by the Justice Department’s recent indictment and U.N. reports. Indeed, Bill Brown’s analysis tells us that North Korea has dollarized its economy to stabilize it. The most recent counter-arguments are that North Korea doesn’t directly access the financial system through its banks, and that it effectively hides its money using front companies.

The latter arguments are best addressed by pointing to the example of C4ADS’s exposure of hundreds of North Korean ships, agents, and front companies using open-source research. That, in turn, led to the indictment of, and forfeiture action against, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, which used its own bank accounts to provide indirect correspondent account services to a sanctioned North Korean bank, Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation. The new 311 rule expands the prohibition on providing such services to cover all North Korean banks, not just those designated by the Treasury Department.

The DHID case is illustrative of one of the main strategies North Korea has used to adapt to the BDA action. It uses front companies like DHID, Chinpo Shipping, and 88 Queensway, and others that operate as unlicensed money transmitting businesses, which is itself a criminal offense. Those businesses then use their own accounts in Chinese banks to provide North Korea with indirect correspondent account services. In other words, the DHID indictments reaffirmed that North Korea continues to rely on the dollar system, and we have legal tools that are perfectly suited to shutting down that use — or would be, if the Obama administration had the political will to use them.

One discouraging sign is that Treasury did not also impose Special Measure 2, as Bill Newcomb and I recommended, apparently claiming a lack of jurisdiction.

As described above and in the NOF, FinCEN shares the concerns raised by the comment regarding North Korea’s extensive use of deceptive financial practices, including the use of shell and front companies to obfuscate the true originator, beneficiary, and purpose behind its transactions. However, FinCEN’s authority, as granted by Congress in 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(2), applies only to information concerning the beneficial ownership of “account[s] opened or maintained in the United States” and thus would not extend to information relating to the beneficial ownership of property writ large, or to property outside the United States as the comment suggested. [Final Rule]

This is a blue answer to a green question. What we were suggesting, of course, was exactly what paragraph (b)(2) of Section 311 authorizes — that Treasury may “require any domestic financial institution or domestic financial agency to take such steps as the Secretary may determine to be reasonable and practicable to obtain and retain information concerning the beneficial ownership of any account opened or maintained in the United States by a foreign person.” To the extent that North Korea’s front companies transact in dollars and use banks that operate in U.S. jurisdiction, FINCEN has the jurisdiction to impose this measure. Either Treasury is conceding that it has no jurisdiction to enforce this entire provision, or it simply isn’t willing to use it. And when North Korea’s sanctions evasion strategy is all about hiding its money behind shell companies and front companies, exposing these interests will be key to making sanctions work.

The new 311 action thus has one potential advantage and one potential disadvantage over Treasury’s 2005 action against Banco Delta Asia, the effectiveness of which is beyond serious dispute. Unlike the BDA action, Treasury’s new 311 action covers all North Korean banks, not just one small Chinese bank that enabled them. But the advantage that BDA had over Treasury’s final rule is that it signaled a willingness to reach third-party enablers, including Chinese banks, that the Obama administration hasn’t shown. The BDA action was followed by a campaign of global financial diplomacy that sent a clear message to North Korea’s bankers everywhere. Today, in contrast, the designation of North Korea would never have happened had Congress not forced the administration to act through legislation, and Congress seems unanimous in its frustration that the administration isn’t willing to enforce the law.

In theory, the new 311 action could be the single most powerful sanction yet imposed on North Korea. In practice, however, it will amount to nothing if the administration continues to refrain from enforcing the new sanction, by simply looking the other way at Chinese banks’ laissez-faire compliance with Know-Your-Customer rules, and even flagrant cases of money laundering.

All of which promises to set up major tensions between the U.S. and China during the next administration, but I’ll let you read Josh Rogin’s take on that, along with this, this, this, this, and this, all suggesting that if Clinton wins, she’ll intensify sanctions against His Porcine Majesty and his Chinese bankers. Speculate on your own as to whether this is just talk. Also, speculate on your own as to which of Trump’s advisors really speaks for a potential President Trump.

1 Comment

  1. I have no doubt that Hillary is serious about taking a hard line against North Korea because, as Ross Douthat noted in one of his recent columns, Hillary has a record of making safe choices in line with the conventional wisdom, and you cannot get anymore mainstream than a 418-2 vote in the House and a unanimous vote in the Senate. Also, it’s not as if she has much of a choice. China isn’t even pretending to clamp down on North Korea this time at the Security Council.




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