I often talk about the importance of pressuring China to pressure North Korea. When I do, people sometimes cock their heads like my dog would do when he heard a new sound, and ask me whether China would cooperate with that. I answer this question with a question of my own: “Which China?” China, for all its top-down authoritarianism, isn’t a monolith. Like most societies, it has different constituencies with different views that fear different risks and pursue different interests. That’s why my answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second.
If you mean the Chinese defense establishment, which is constitutionally hostile to the United States and sees itself as in a zero-sum, Cold War competition against us, the answer will always be “no.” That China is our enemy by its own choice. Its default is to view anything that’s bad for America as good for China. Its attitude is probably hardening.
If you mean the Chinese foreign policy establishment, the answer will also be “no,” but its obstructionism might be tempered by strategic compromises or interrupted by some temporary feints at compliance (currently, the so-called coal ban). It’s almost as hostile to us as the defense establishment, but it pursues its ambitions more intelligently. It may despise Kim Jong-un, or it might just be pretending to, but either way, it probably despises us even more. Still, it recognizes the value of playing us, and it does that very well.
If you mean the Chinese businesses that willingly deal with North Korea, the answer will be “no” as long as North Korea’s checks clear, and it will be “yes” the instant they don’t, and it will be “yes” the instant the businessmen learn — to their abject horror — that some other businessman who deals with North Korea just had his bank accounts frozen and couldn’t make the payments on his Buick and that America can really do that.
If you mean the Chinese Finance Ministry, it will be “no” until we raise the cost of non-cooperation to unsustainable levels, by threatening to depress the levels of growth it must sustain to pay pensions for its aging population and maintain economic stability. That is its mission. And interestingly enough, China’s terrible reputation for financial integrity is a growing threat to that mission. I’ll explain in a moment.
If you mean the Chinese banks, it will be “no” until subpoenas start to rain down on their New York branches and their lawyers tell them that the only way to avoid the fate of BNP Paribas is to cooperate with the feds and settle for reduced civil penalties and deferred prosecution.
It’s a misnomer to refer to a “Chinese” banking industry that relies on access to foreign finance, and thus subjects itself to foreign regulation. Going global can cause some culture shock for banks that are used to China’s lax Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulation. For the last few years, Treasury’s AML focus has been on European and Middle Eastern banks dealing with Iran, so Chinese banks have had a (mostly) free ride from the feds. But New York and EU regulators haven’t been as laissez-faire about AML compliance and have been handing them some stiff fines. That’s why People’s Bank of China officials recently “pledged a tougher fight against money laundering.”
Behind this clarion call by Beijing’s bank supervisors was an unnerving realization that some of the nation’s biggest banks had left themselves vulnerable to anti-money-laundering sweeps by regulators abroad.
This vulnerability stems from ambitious overseas expansions in recent years by the Bank of China (BOC), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and other powerful, state-owned lenders. As of June, according to official data, China’s biggest bank, the ICBC, was operating 412 branches in 42 countries, while the BOC had 564 branches in 46 countries. China Construction Bank (CCB) counted 140 overseas branches, and Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) had 17. [Caixin Global]
Here comes the culture shock.
At home, according to banking experts who spoke with Caixin, Chinese banks have been operating in a regulatory environment that’s generally soft on money laundering rules for financial institutions. Some of these banks have thus learned the hard way that many regulators outside China not only diligently enforce rules designed to prevent dirty transactions, but are also eager to slap violators with heavy fines and even imprisonment.
And also, don’t usually take bribes.
The BOC, the nation’s fourth-largest lender, reportedly agreed on Feb. 17 to pay 600,000 euros ($634,000) to settle a money laundering case involving its branch in Milan, Italy. The branch had been targeted by Italian investigators since June 2015 who had looked into whether BOC helped clients transfer to China about 2 million euros linked to criminal activity.
In addition, a judge in the Italian city of Florence on the same day handed four BOC-Milan branch employees two-year suspended prison sentences after they were convicted of breaking Italy’s anti-money-laundering laws.
A Hong Kong-based expert on money laundering who declined to be named said while the fine against BOC-Milan was comparatively “moderate,” the criminal convictions were “surprising.” The decisions in Italy followed a November decision in the United States by New York state’s Department of Financial Services, which fined a local ABC branch $215 million for illicit money transfers.
By now, it has become reasonably clear that the Trump administration will soon revoke the sub rosa immunity the Obama administration had given Chinese banks to launder North Korea’s money. Not only will Chinese banks have to worry about EU and state regulators, they’ll have to start worrying about the Treasury Department, too.
That isn’t just a worry for China’s smaller, shadier banks. Some of the biggest banks in China were servicing North Korean customers until at least early 2016. Others were named in the Dandong Hongxiang case for doing so months later. Some of those banks have branches in New York. Those without still depend on U.S. correspondents to process their payments through the financial system, just as Banco Delta Asia once did.
The correspondents, in turn, have legal duties to comply with Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and AML regulations, which will require them to ask questions about the names, nationalities, and passport numbers of their customers; whether they’re sanctioned by the UN, Treasury, or the EU; and whether their business addresses are, say, shell companies in the British Virgin Islands, or empty offices next door to the local North Korean embassy. Treasury expects banks to hire qualified compliance specialists, employ highly specialized compliance software, and implement AML and KYC compliance procedures.
If Treasury begins to enforce those rules, banks will skimp on AML and KYC compliance (such as) at their own peril. If you click those last two links, you’ll see that I just cited examples of Chinese banks that got away with lax compliance in the past. The Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) is an example of one that didn’t:
After the branch opened in August 2012, Yu worked to boost the ABC’s interbank-transaction business through trade financing and other services. His goal was to quickly expand assets at the branch, which was ABC’s only operation in the United States.
But Yu’s strategy apparently exposed the branch to compliance risks, as his favorite businesses involved transactions executed on behalf of other banks’ customers. And ABC had limited access to information about those customers.
Yu maintained his strategic focus despite a 2014 warning by the central bank pointing to risks associated with overseas banking services.
Until a whistleblower came along, anyway.
But that same year, Taft’s allegations landed on investigator desks at the New York Fed, triggering a probe that led to a Fed order in September: ABC was given 60 days to deliver a plan for fixing risk management flaws and enhancing money controls at the New York branch.
The fines were levied two months later after New York state regulators determined ABC had deliberately failed to scrutinize dubious money transfers.
Now for the part where the bank rolls over, cooperates, and promises to get its compliance act together to reduce its penalty.
Sources close to the matter said an original fine of $500 million was eventually cut by more than half following negotiations between regulators and ABC-New York. The branch also agreed to hire an independent, regulator-approved monitor to assess its business.
“After the incident, ABC (headquarters in China) held several meetings emphasizing managing overseas branches and subsidiaries,” said a source at the bank.
Nevertheless, the bank’s reputation had taken a major hit. In November, for example, the credit rating agency Moody’s said the regulatory penalty had highlighted oversight failures at ABC and would have a negative effect on the bank’s credit rating.
Political subversion and human intelligence can be another wedge to incentivize banks to make better choices. Every arrest or defection of a North Korean diplomat or financier has the potential to expose more parts of Pyongyang’s financial network and implicate the banks that skirted the law to do business with them. If banks begin to see North Korea itself as unstable, more of them will begin to see North Korean customers as legally risky. The best possible way for a bank to mitigate that risk? File a Suspicious Activity Report with the Treasury Department and cooperate.
All of which is a long way of saying that China’s generals and diplomats almost certainly won’t cooperate on North Korea, at least not voluntarily — and not yet. That will make it harder to enforce sanctions (especially trade sanctions) but by no means impossible, because the Chinese banking industry has to cooperate. China’s generals and diplomats may not want commercial banks to be AML compliant, but China’s central bank does. Banks in Malaysia, Russia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Tanzania will face the same choice, of course, but China is the lynchpin, the Abbottabad of North Korea’s illicit finance. That finance is absolutely essential to Kim Jong-un’s capacity to buy, sell, import, export, pay, fuel, repair, and sustain. The Workers’ Party almost certainly keeps most of its money in Chinese banks. After all, what are you going to buy with all the money in Pyongyang, especially now that correspondent relationships with North Korean banks are banned by both the U.N. and the U.S.? Answer: stuff imported from China, bought with dollars held on deposit in a Chinese bank.
Freeze those dollars and Pyongyang is living on borrowed time. Sure, you can smuggle bulk cash a few million dollars at a time. Sure, you can run uninsured rust-buckets across the Yellow Sea with their lights and transponders turned off, carrying away whatever wares that cash buys, at least until all the (uninsured) ships smack into rocks, get T-boned by oil tankers, or get seized at the entrance to some canal or another. Drug cartels can run that way for years, but that isn’t a sustainable model for ruling over 23 million increasingly informed and resentful people.
Now that I’ve laid this foundation, you’ll understand the legal and policy implications of my upcoming post about what U.N. Panel of Experts report, and what it just told us about China, North Korea, and money laundering.