Why Seoul’s blacklisting of Air Koryo & Dandong Hongxiang matters

South Korea is the first of the Free Three (the U.S., South Korea, and Japan) to announce independent multilateral sanctions on North Korea following the approval of UNSCR 2321. Some of the measures, such as the blacklisting of Choe Ryong-hae and Hwang Pyong-so, will probably mean almost nothing until some future left-wing president tries to give one of them a ticker-tape parade along the Chongro.

An extension of South Korea’s ban on ships that have entered North Korean ports within the last 180 days will do more, by forcing shipping companies to choose between the modest trade with North Korea and the much more significant trade with Japan and South Korea. With North Korea’s own ships already under rising pressure even pre-2321, and now facing a loss of access to insurance, North Korea may soon find itself increasingly isolated from its export markets.

South Korea’s blacklisting of Air Koryo, while not directly significant by itself (Air Koryo doesn’t fly to South Korea) may foreshadow a corresponding action by the U.S. Treasury Department, which would freeze North Korea’s national airline out of the dollar system and seriously crimp its operations. (Update: That turns out to have been a pretty good guess. OFAC just released a new round of designations that includes North Korean banks, slave labor merchants, the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and Air Koryo. I’ll have more to say after work.) It could also clear the way for South Korean diplomats to lobby middle powers like Malaysia, Thailand, Kuwait, and Singapore to deny Air Koryo landing rights. That would be a severe blow to Pyongyang. South Korea’s diplomatic campaign against North Korea’s foreign clients has been highly effective this year.

The most important and courageous move, however, was this one:

In particular, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development and four of its executives were included on the list, marking the first time that a Chinese firm is facing South Korea’s unilateral sanctions.

The company is under investigation on suspicions that it exported aluminum oxide — a nuclear bomb ingredient — to the North at least twice in recent years. In September, the U.S. blacklisted it along with its owner and other company officials.

With the latest action by Seoul, a total of 79 individuals and 69 entities will be subject to sanctions in connection with the North’s nuclear programs. The government announced a blacklist in March as a follow-up move to the UNSC’s Resolution 2270 adopted in the wake of the North’s fourth nuclear test in January.

Any financial transactions with them will be prohibited, while their assets in South Korea will be frozen. The blacklisted people will also be banned from entering the country, which is seen as a symbolic action given that there are no exchanges between the two Koreas. [Yonhap]

This could be the first sign that the three allies, acting outside the U.N. and beyond the reach of a Chinese or Russian veto, are forming a coalition to combine their economic power behind secondary sanctions against Pyongyang. If Japan joins in this, it will mean that the Chinese trading companies that prop up His Corpulency’s misrule will now face not only the freezing of their dollar assets, but the loss of their trade relationships with the two most important non-Chinese markets in northeast Asia. If those Chinese trading companies think they can mitigate the risk of secondary sanctions by insulating themselves from the dollar, Seoul has just added an additional layer of risk for those that continue to trade with Pyongyang. If the Free Three have coordinated their sanctions well, Tokyo will soon add its heft to that risk. Trading companies’ shareholders, officers, and bankers may find that risk increasingly unacceptable.

Beijing knows that while Dandong Hongxiang is itself a dead letter, this sort of Progressive Diplomacy represents a dangerous precedent for its interests. I expect it to react furiously. Even a year ago, I could not have imagined Park Geun-hye antagonizing South Korea’s greatest trading partner this way. Today, with all the noise about impeachment and the North Korean crisis, the Chinese reaction could be crowded out of the headlines. But with Park having conceded that she cannot hold onto power for long, she has nothing to lose.

Not only does Park have no reason not to burn bridges, she may have her own reasons to punish China. If she’s at least as paranoid as I am, she may suspect China, or its North Korean dependent, of directly or indirectly supporting the media frenzy that led to her downfall. It seems plausible in the age of Wikileaks that foreign governments give clandestine support to media hostile to leaders who oppose their interests. She may even suspect them of having planted the tablet that first broke the scandal. Personally, I see no direct evidence of it, nor do I think it’s more than 20 percent likely, but I’ve yet to see anyone explain (or even inquire into) the remarkable coincidence by which a discarded device just falls into the lap of a hostile press and topples a head of state. It seems easier to pull off than, say, throwing Wisconsin to Trump.

Either way, Park Geun-hye isn’t going quietly, and she’s gambling that the actions she takes on her way out the door will have the support of a future President Trump. No matter how much the Hankyoreh rages, that will make those actions even harder for her successor to undo than for her to do. What we may be seeing here is the first brick in a multinational sanctions coalition in which the members concentrate their collective power against Pyongyang’s enablers. For now, the Free Three are the core of that coalition, but with skillful diplomacy and time, that coalition may soon include other middle powers, other issuers of convertible currencies, and key members of an increasingly fractious European Union.

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