The U.S. may (finally) be serious about capping North Korea’s coal exports

For almost three months after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the U.N. Security Council remained deadlocked over how to respond, with the U.S. and its allies pressing to limit Kim Jong-un’s access to hard currency and China trying to shield its belligerent protectorate from the consequences of its behavior.

Among the most hotly debated questions was how to limit North Korea’s coal exports to China, one of His Porcine Majesty’s most important sources of hard currency. Although UNSCR 2270, passed in March after the fourth nuke test, banned most of Pyongyang’s mineral exports, there was a gaping loophole allowing exports of coal, iron, and iron ore for “livelihood” purposes. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that “livelihood” translated into Chinese means “whatever.” The exception soon swallowed the rule, and coal exports did not fall; they rose … by a lot. By September, China’s coal imports from North Korea had risen 12.8 percent over the same period last year, to a record high. The Obama administration clearly felt that China was cheating. (See also my posts from March, July, and October and Stef Haggard’s post from yesterday.)

The eventual compromise the U.S. and China reached in UNSCR 2321 was disappointing, to say the least. Rather than take any plausible steps to ensure that Pyongyang really used its coal money to provide for the livelihoods of its hungry people, the resolution simply capped coal exports at $400 million or 7.5 million metric tons a year, whichever is less. (In 2015, North Korea exported $1 billion worth of coal to China) On paper, Chinese power companies were also prohibited from buying any amount of coal from entities associated with North Korea’s WMD programs.

The flaws in this “solution” are obvious. How will we know how much coal North Korea exported, and at what price? By relying on Chinese customs statistics? How will we know which North Korean entities really sold the coal? And more fundamentally, given that cash is fungible and North Korean despots have consistently prioritized their arsenals and their own high lifestyles over the survival of their people, how can anyone verify how the world’s most financially opaque society spent the money? If China really gave a whit about the “livelihoods” of North Koreans — in fact, it holds the lives of North Korean men, women, and children in utter contempt — it would have agreed to pay for “livelihood” coal in the form of food, or to the World Food Program. An unverifiable cap is a license to cheat.

~   ~   ~

But Treasury’s announcement last week of bilateral sanctions against certain North Korean coal exporters, who Treasury believes “may benefit the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Part (sic) of Korea,” could go far to swallow the “livelihood” cap exception to the coal ban that swallows the rule.

OFAC designated Daewon Industries and the Kangbong Trading Corporation for having sold, supplied, transferred, or purchased, directly or indirectly, to or from North Korea, metal, graphite, coal, or software, where revenue or goods received may benefit the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Part of Korea.  The Kangbong Trading Corporation’s parent is the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces.  Daewon Industries also operates in the energy industry in the North Korean economy, and may be subordinate to the Munitions Industry Department, which is sanctioned in UNSCR 2270, designated by the U.S. pursuant to E.O. 13382, and responsible for overseeing the development of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, including the Taepo Dong-2. [U.S. Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

With that action, Treasury’s clear message to Chinese buyers is that certain North Korean sources are off limits, cap or no cap. The recent example of the Dandong Hongxiang indictment and forfeiture complaint hovers over all of this, posing a credible threat that Chinese buyers could have their dollar assets frozen. And in case anyone thinks Dandong Hongxiang was a one-off, our diplomats have said it isn’t.

The United States has warned China it will blacklist Chinese companies and banks that do illicit business with North Korea if Beijing fails to enforce U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang, according to senior State Department officials. The tougher U.S. approach reflects growing impatience with China and a view that it has not strictly enforced existing sanctions to help curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program, which a U.S. policy of both sanctions and diplomacy has failed to dent.

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave the message to Chinese officials in meetings in Beijing in October after North Korea conducted its fifth and largest nuclear test, the officials said. U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Secretary of State John Kerry stressed the importance of choking off financial flows to Pyongyang during a meeting with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi in New York on Nov. 1. [Reuters]

There are some early signs that Chinese industry may have gotten that message, although it’s typical for Chinese companies to slow their trade with North Korea temporarily after the U.N. passes new sanctions. As I’ve pointed out here more than once, there is undeniable evidence that China has violated North Korea sanctions frequently and flagrantly for years. China will not wait long to resume its cheating and test our resolve. With demand for North Korean coking coal high, we’ll need a strong deterrent to enforce sanctions. If our President-Elect has done anything right, he has sent a clear (and apparently calculated) message that China’s sensitivities will not prevent him from acting decisively to protect U.S. interests. After all, it’s not as if our sensitivities have had much visible effect on China’s behavior.

This wasn’t the only energy sanction Treasury imposed last Friday:

OFAC designated the Korea Oil Exploration Corporation for operating in the energy industry in the North Korean economy.  The Korea Oil Exploration Corporation is a state-controlled enterprise of the North Korea Ministry of Oil.  The Korea Oil Exploration Corporation has reportedly worked to establish contracts with Iranian oil entities, in part to supply crude oil to two refineries in North Korea. [U.S. Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

Among others, that’s probably bad news for James Passin, a hedge fund manager who gambled his shareholders’ money on a refinery and oil exploration in North Korea. U.N. sanctions ban exports of aviation and rocket fuel to North Korea, but not crude. Until recently, China continued to export petroleum products to North Korea. (For the record, I oppose banning exports of gasoline, diesel, and heating oil to North Korea, for humanitarian reasons.)

~   ~   ~

The Obama administration’s designation of the North Korean companies consolidates a U.S. shift to a harder line on sanctions enforcement, reflecting a bipartisan consensus for tougher action in Congress. It’s also satisfying to me personally, because the administration has adopted the strategy I advocated here in October.  Note that the language in the Treasury Department’s press release (“revenue [that] may benefit the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Part of Korea”) does not match the language of UNSCR 2321 (“entities that are associated with the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes or other activities prohibited by [applicable U.N.] resolutions”), because the administration relied on the domestic legal authority of Executive Order 13722 instead:

Sec. 2. (a) All property and interests in property that are in the United States, that hereafter come within the United States, or that are or hereafter come within the possession or control of any United States person of the following persons are blocked and may not be transferred, paid, exported, withdrawn, or otherwise dealt in: any person determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State:

   (i) to operate in any industry in the North Korean economy as may be determined by the Secretary of the Treasury, in consultation with the Secretary of State, to be subject to this subsection, such as transportation, mining, energy, or financial services;

   (ii) to have sold, supplied, transferred, or purchased, directly or indirectly, to or from North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea, metal, graphite, coal, or software, where any revenue or goods received may benefit the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea, including North Korea’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs;  [EO 13722]

Those provisions, in turn, implement sections 104(a)(8) and 104(b)(1) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. They may have also reflected Treasury’s interpretation of the coal export ban as passed in March, in UNSCR 2270. U.N. resolutions don’t enforce themselves. They require U.N. member states to implement their sanctions through legislation. Member states that want U.N. sanctions to work benefit from a U.N. imprimatur to globalize sanctions enforcement. Each level of authority needs and complements the other.

Tactically, it was wise of the administration to wait for the (undoubtedly difficult) negotiations with China to conclude before it acted. The clear message it sent at the conclusion of that negotiation is that, for the time it has left, it will hold China to its word. Let’s hope the next administration is equally serious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *