What the Treasury Department’s blocking of Air Koryo means

Last week’s North Korea sanctions designations by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control — commonly known as OFAC — go far to explain why U.N. Security Council Resolution 2321 took so long to negotiate and pass. There were many reasons why I panned the terms of that resolution last week, including new and not-improved coal export limits, and the U.N.’s failure to designate North Korea’s state airline, Air Koryo.

Friday’s OFAC designations — which block any of the targets’ assets in the United States, and more importantly, any dollar assets that move through the U.S. financial system for international transactions — plug many of the holes UNSCR 2321 left. Treasury has sent a strong signal that when China blocks swift and effective consequences for North Korea’s provocations, the U.S. is (at last, at least for now) prepared to join with its allies and go beyond the United Nations. This almost certainly means that the U.S. made no sub rosa agreement to stay its hand.

I. There was strong evidence that Air Koryo had violated U.N. sanctions for years.

U.N. reports alone provided ample evidence to support the designation of Air Koryo. For years, the U.N. Panel of Experts that oversees (non-)compliance with U.N. sanctions had called Air Koryo out for lending its aircraft to the North Korean air force for military purposes, for arms smuggling, and for suspicious financial transactions. In 2014, for example, the Panel reported that Air Koryo was, for all intents and purposes, an arm of the North Korean military, and cited NK News’s reports that Air Koryo Il-76s were sometimes repainted for military exercises and shows. It published photographs of one Air Koryo Il-76 after an air show, with camouflage still showing through the white paint of its civilian livery.

141.  As previously indicated by the Panel, Air Koryo and all airports or airfields within the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are controlled by the Korean People’s Air Force through its Civil Aviation Bureau. Reportedly, all personnel are members of the air force and all in-country maintenance is conducted by Air Force engineering staff.  The absence of boundaries between Air Koryo and the air force was further highlighted by the 27 July 2013 military parade during which three military Ilyushin (Il) 76 flew over Kim Il Sung square (see figure XXV). [UN POE]

Then, there is this language from the 2014 report, suggesting that Air Koryo may have been running an elaborate money laundering scheme, one that foreshadows its likely sanctions evasion strategy:

178.  An example of a transaction being financed in an unusually complex manner was an Air Koryo contract in 2012 to purchase new aircraft.  Payments were structured through eight Hong Kong, China-registered companies, which asserted that they were trading partners of Air Koryo and were wiring funds they owed it. The resolutions do not prohibit the purchase of civilian passenger and cargo aircraft. The Panel, however, was dubious of the explanation that debts were the source of the funds; some companies appear to be recently formed shell companies. It also finds remarkable the coincidence of all eight firms owing significant amounts to Air Koryo at the time funds were contractually due to be paid to the seller of the aircraft. The names of shells and activities of others appear to share a connection with gold trading. The Panel is suspicious that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea may be using or considering the use of precious metal sales on credit terms to create “accounts payable”. Such sources for funds would not necessarily show as being under its control and even could be swapped with other firms to further distance its connection and thereby better evade sanctions and enhanced due diligence by banks. [UN POE]

There were also regular reports (and photographic evidence) that North Korean officials and couriers used Air Koryo to import luxury goods and smuggle bulk cash, in violation of U.N. sanctions. The 2016 Panel of Experts report published photographs of a consignment of SCUD missile parts shipped from North Korea to Egypt aboard an Air Koryo flight. In 2015, the Panel made this conclusion:

120. Given the evidence of military use, the Panel considers that providing financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance relating to the provision, maintenance or use of Air Koryo’s cargo aircraft could constitute a violation of the embargo on all arms and related materiel as defined by paragraph 10 of resolution 1874 (2009). [UN POE]

Although it’s apparent that China blocked a U.N. designation of Air Koryo in UNSCR 2321, it’s also apparent that experts appointed to the panel by other nations saw ample justification for a designation of Air Koryo, and had been pushing for one for years. Pyongyang also used Air Koryo to transport slave laborers abroad and back, including the flight that brought home 100 mutinous workers from Kuwait, almost certainly to a very dark fate. Belatedly, UNSCR 2321 expressed “concern” about this exploitation, albeit with non-binding language.

That’s why OFAC’s designation of Air Koryo, two days after the U.N. failed to do so, was anything but “unilateral.” That matters, because we will need the cooperation of other states to make Air Koryo sanctions effective. For example, South Korea’s own designation of Air Koryo will have little direct effect, because Air Koryo doesn’t fly to South Korea, but (depending on how South Korea’s political crisis resolves) South Korean diplomats may soon call on Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Kuwait, and other countries to join the ban. (Singapore, an important North Korean trading partner, doesn’t have its own independent SDN list for North Korea sanctions; it just adopts the U.N. list.) The EU will probably also cooperate. Even before the OFAC designation, it had banned most Air Koryo planes over safety concerns.

If anyone in this story acted unilaterally — aside from North Korea, of course — it was China, in blocking Air Koryo’s designation despite all of the incriminating evidence. I don’t doubt that China will try to help Air Koryo continue operating with Renminbi transactions, although it remains to be seen whether Chinese banks will risk handling them. But with each new North Korean provocation, China will find itself increasingly isolated and pressured to yield to the consensus. That’s how Progressive Diplomacy should work.

Now, every venue that gives Air Koryo landing rights will come under diplomatic pressure to stop doing so. Expect Air Koryo’s itinerary and Pyongyang’s tourist income to continue to ebb, but past history (more on that below) suggests that Pyongyang will find ways to keep Air Koryo flying, even if only at a punishing financial loss. Viewed that way, sanctions won’t only be costly if they destroy Air Koryo. They may be even more costly if they don’t.

II. How U.S. sanctions will affect Air Koryo’s operations.

OFAC didn’t just designate Air Koryo last Friday; it also designated its offices and all its individual aircraft — well, almost all. Compare Treasury’s list of designated Air Koryo aircraft to Table 9 from the 2015 U.N. Panel of Experts report, and you’ll see that Treasury’s list is three planes short of the POE’s list — specifically, one Tu-134 and two Il-62s. Did Treasury spare the three remaining aircraft for some reason? Did it simply lack full identifying information about them? Probably not. First, note that the three aircraft are among the oldest in Air Koryo’s fleet. A more likely explanation comes from Paragraph 117 of the 2014 POE report, which says that Air Koryo bought two of its Il-62s from Cuba in 2012 and cannibalized them for spare parts. OFAC probably saw no point in designating two old hangar queens. It’s likely that the remaining Tu-134 aged out, too.

How will the OFAC designation affect Air Koryo? Let’s start by establishing its baseline. Two years ago, the Panel of Experts offered this summary of Air Koryo’s itinerary:

139.  The numbers of air carriers operating scheduled flights and routes to or from Pyongyang Sunan International Airport remain very limited. However, the number of flights per route has changed since May 2013. The number of weekly rotations to Beijing has increased from six to eight, with five rotations operated by Air Koryo and three by Air China, the only foreign airline regularly serving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.  Air Koryo now also operates two weekly rotations to Vladivostok. The number of rotations to Shenyang is unchanged (twice a week), while the number to Kuala Lumpur decreased (from twice to once a week). The status of its weekly rotation to Bangkok is unknown. This flight and others to Kuwait City, Moscow, Nanjing, Shanghai and Yanji, China, are most likely operated on an ad hoc and/or seasonal basis. [UN POE]

This is not the first time the Treasury Department has designated a rogue state’s flag carrier. Treasury designated Syrian Air in 2013 for smuggling weapons, and the EU soon followed suit. Syrian Air kept flying to the Gulf states with the help of front companies, money laundering, and bulk cash smuggling. Treasury designated Iran Air in 2011, after years of U.S. export controls made it difficult for the airline to buy spare parts. In 2010, the EU banned some Iran Air craft over safety concerns. After its OFAC designation, Iran Air’s flights to Western Europe had to make fuel stops in Eastern Europe, but the airline limped along until President Obama lifted its designation earlier this year. The 1998 designation of Sudan Airways, along with “financial troubles and mismanagement,” eventually reduced it to just six working (but aging) aircraft. In 2015, the U.S. government fined EgyptAir for leasing two 737s to Sudan Airways. But then, Sudan Airways’s two-letter flight code, “SD,” has long been said to stand for “sudden death.”

This history suggests that Pyongyang will try to keep its flag carrier flying, even if at great expense and inconvenience, to show its defiance and maintain its prestige. But like Iran Air and Sudan Airways, Air Koryo was already straining to maintain a fleet of aging aircraft before its OFAC designation. If North Korea runs an airline as ineptly as it runs, say, its food supply, over time it will be forced to drop routes and flights, which Chinese air carriers will try to pick up. Currently, Air China is the only other airline with regular flights to North Korea. (Spring Airlines had expressed interest in starting flights to Pyongyang, but later shelved that plan.) These airlines will have greater dollar exposure and more reluctance to risk ferrying luxury goods or slaves. They will feel more constrained by UNSCR 2321’s mandate to inspect all checked baggage to and from North Korea for, say, bundles of cash, stashes of gold, or big screen TVs.

Air Koryo may try to collect fares and buy parts in non-dollar currencies, but past history suggests it will simply try to evade the dollar sanctions. This will come with great costs and inconveniences. As we learned from the Dandong Hongxiang indictments, it’s almost impossible to operate in the global economy without dollars, and evading dollar sanctions requires working through shady middlemen who sometimes charge commissions of more than 20 percent. The more layers of protection you want, the more middlemen you need, and each layer adds to that cost. It will be hard, but still possible, for Air Koryo to keep flying with its dollar accounts frozen and its capacity to acquire spare parts and new aircraft curtailed. (UNSCR 2321 bans North Korea from purchasing or leasing new vessels and helicopters, but not fixed-wing civilian aircraft.) The operations of a national flag carrier aren’t easily concealed. Air Koryo will have to market itself to sell seats and operate profitably. Every destination where its planes land will come under investigative and diplomatic scrutiny. 

III. How the designation of Air Koryo will affect the North Korea tourist industry.

Much of the media interest in the designation of Air Koryo has focused on how the designation will impact tourism to North Korea — specifically, tourism to North Korea by Americans and Europeans. That interest, in turn, probably derives from the inexplicably popular idea that (overwhelmingly) white people who travel to North Korea will shine their gentle, warming rays on the local savages by “open speech and simple an hundred times made plain, to seek another’s profit and work another’s gain.” ICYMI:

For some people, visiting North Korea is like dating Madonna — plodding a tired, well-worn, loveless, and morally ambiguous path that gives some people an inexplicable feeling that they’ve entered an unexplored place. Except that Dennis Rodman and countless others already did. 

Designating Air Koryo will undoubtedly reduce Pyongyang tourist revenue, but it’s hard to say by how much. Yonhap has published an estimate that in 2014, tourism poured $43 million into North Korea. Some experts have told me that estimate sounds high, but Sheena Chestnut Greitens (who is, due to unrelated developments, about to become the First Lady of Missouri) previously cited an unnamed South Korean expert’s “high estimate” of $100 million. How much of this income is from Air Koryo’s ticket sales is anyone’s guess. The overwhelming majority of tourists who visit North Korea are Chinese who may find it more convenient to fly Air China or take the train.

Air Koryo’s designation will have a greater impact on Europeans and Americans, who pay a premium to travel to North Korea. Uri Tours, one of the companies that sells group tours of North Korea to slummers, inept evangelists, prospective hostages, and other unrequited masochists turns out to be a business partner of North Korea’s missile-part-smuggling, money-laundering, slave-ferrying airline.

Uri Tours is the exclusive General Sales and Ticketing Agent of Air Koryo in the Americas. We service tourists, business travelers, corporations, foreign workers and government officials to provide expedient Air Koryo ticketing in advance of your trip. We take credit card payment and we can offer same day ticketing.

Air Koryo is North Korea’s only airline and has a history of over 50 years in flight. Air Koryo operates internationally scheduled flights between Pyongyang, China (Beijing, Shenyang and Shanghai), Russia (Vladivostok), Thailand (Bangkok), and Kuwait. It also operates charter flights to and from Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur), Singapore and a handful of other countries. Domestic flights to Mount Paekdu and Mount Chilbo (and soon Wonsan) are also operated by Air Koryo. [Uri Tours]

Uri Tours reacted to OFAC’s designation of its North Korean partner with a blog post that tells us that as of last week, it was still in the denial stage.

Do these new sanctions affect tourism?

E.O. 13722 does not prohibit U.S. persons from engaging in transactions ordinarily incident to travel to or from any country. This means that U.S. persons can travel to North Korea. You are also still permitted to book tours to North Korea with a U.S. tour operator. It is our position that Uri Tours’ travel activities are covered under the IEEPA exemptions and moreover, we were an existing tour service to North Korea before E.O. 13722 which prohibits new investment in North Korea by a U.S. person. [Uri Tours]

To unpack Uri’s “position,” begin with OFAC’s specific legal authority for the designation of Air Koryo, Executive Order 13722, which authorizes sectoral sanctions against North Korea’s transportation industry (along with mining, energy, and financial services). Taking Uri’s arguments in reverse order, it claims that because its business relationship with Air Koryo predated the OFAC designation, its relationship is not affected. But section 1(b) of EO 13722 states as follows:

The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order or pursuant to the export control authorities implemented by the Department of Commerce, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted prior to the effective date of this order. [EO 13722]

If Uri Tours doesn’t have a lawyer, this would be a good time to invest in one. If Uri Tours has a lawyer, this would be a good time to invest in a better one. The penalties for violating the IEEPA include 20 years in one of these

Uri also cites an OFAC FAQ, Number 464, and characterizes it as opining that Americans are free to travel to North Korea for tourism. In fact, the FAQ only provides guidance on humanitarian travel (which is exempt from sanctions under a general license that doesn’t apply to tourism). The FAQ was published on March 16, 2016, the day after the President signed EO 13722, but long before the designation of Air Koryo. It says nothing about tourist travel.

Uri makes a stronger argument when it cites our old friend, the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, which creates the legal authority for sanctions executive orders and designations, but withholds (in section 203(b)(4)) “the authority to regulate or prohibit, directly or indirectly . . . any transactions ordinarily incident to travel to or from any country.” But if Uri Tours thinks the U.S. can’t designate an airline because of section 203(b)(4), I’ve already shown you ample precedent to the contrary. Whether an individual U.S. tourist can book an Air Koryo flight is an interesting question I’ll leave to the Treasury Department to resolve in a future FAQ, but good luck booking that flight if no bank will process your fare payment. Uri’s suggestion that 203(b)(4) allows it to go right on transacting with a blocked entity seems dangerously wishful, but Uri’s legal risk isn’t my concern. It misrepresents the law at its own peril. It misrepresents the safety and ethics of travel to North Korea at yours.

Clearly, 203(b)(4) doesn’t exempt airlines from the reach of nonproliferation sanctions. Just as clearly, Treasury makes a distinction between blocking one airline’s assets and a travel ban. Do proliferation sanctions that have incidental effects on travel exceed the authority of 203(b)(4)? I’d guess not, but I’ll let OFAC answer that for itself. But then, the fact that Treasury currently lacks the authority to impose a travel ban doesn’t mean that Congress won’t simply impose one, mooting Uri’s argument. Meanwhile, travel to North Korea all you want on a Chinese airline. All that’s stopping you is your intelligence and your conscience.

~   ~   ~

In the end, the biggest winners from OFAC’s designation of Air Koryo will be Air Koryo’s passengers, and not just the slaves among them. One of them recently related his near-death experience when an Air Koryo crew ran up and down the aisle of his flight, shouting “no problem! no problem!” as the cabin filled with smoke, the plane plunged toward the earth, and the passengers wept for their dear lives. In that story, I saw a fitting microcosm of, and metaphor for, the entire North Korean condition. That was one of their newer planes, too. But if you really want to hear the definitive analysis of how Air Koryo’s designation affects the North Korea tourism industry, ask Otto Warmbier. Unfortunately, he wasn’t available for comment at post time.

6 Comments

  1. Shortly before this was posted, Donald Trump went on an anti-China screed on Twitter right after violating the foreign policy establishment’s commandment that thou shalt not offend China in a way that no US President has done since 1979, apparently deliberately and at Reince Preibus’s urging. Not even Cowboy Dubya. Could you imagine what it would be like when some State Department hack goes up to him after the next North Korean outrage and says, “Mr. President there is a way to potentially disarm Kim Jong Un, but it requires (looks nervously around the room takes deep breath and gulps) angering China.” We might finally be getting the secondary boycott that was written into the law after the January nuclear test and started half-heartedly after the September nuclear test. Also, it just so happens that my birthday is April 15. Make it happen Fatty!

  2. One silver lining to Trump’s election is hearing the shrieking of all the educated imbeciles who brought us to the brink of a nuclear North Korea. And one benefit of Trump’s, erm, idiosyncrasies is the fact that he’s willing to ignore those shrieks, and possibly even take pleasure in them. Admittedly, it’s terrifying to have a president who gives the impression of being erratic and slightly unstable, but that can have its advantages, too. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madman_theory

  3. Correct. The Madman Theory has its advantages. Just ask the successive heads of the Kim clan who have used the appearance of irrationality in order to make us give in to their demands. Also, recent events have been quite illuminating regarding the correct weight to put in the media. See, Shen Dingli as a “moderate.” Jeffery Lewis going on Twitter to call the aforementioned Shen as a friend of his. Not normalizing authoritarians. (Except for Fidel Castro.) A moderating Iran that shows its moderation by holding US sailors at gun point. (And receiving John Kerry’s thanks.) I laughed whenever people I knew would talk about why they supported Trump. I think I see the appeal now.

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