Since the High Court of Singapore reversed part of the conviction of Chinpo Shipping for its role in financing the 2013 Chong Chon Gang arms shipment just over two weeks ago, and despite the crush of other (still unfinished) commitments that have eaten up my blogging time, I’ve wanted to set a few minutes aside to post some thoughts on the decision. (If you haven’t already looked up “chinpo” at Urban Dictionary, you really shouldn’t.)
Let’s start with what the decision wasn’t: a persuasive precedent for a narrow reading of U.N. sanctions:
May 2017: judicial reasoning in the Chinpo Shipping case found that the correct interpretation of UN sanctions against the DPRK is narrower than is often supposed, suggesting that even if current UN sanctions were to be implemented fully by all countries, a lot of trade with the DPRK could still continue lawfully; [Tristan Webb, NK Pro]
Contra Webb’s long-winded and thinly veiled celebration of the decision as a defeat for Donald Trump, “maximum pressure,” and U.N. sanctions, this decision turns out to have been much less than that. Rather, it was a flawed decision interpreting a badly written regulation that was two resolutions out of date at the time, and would be four resolutions out of date now had Singapore not already replaced it with a newer and tougher regulation that would likely have avoided the High Court’s embarrassing decision entirely. This decision is unlikely to be precedent in Singapore, much less in other countries.
The decision should, however, embarrass the 1718 Committee into carrying out its responsibility to “circulate a comprehensive compilation” of the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions (see paragraph 44), and spur the U.S. to lead a global effort to draft model sanctions legislation through the UNSCR 1540 process, the Proliferation Security Initiative, or the Financial Action Task Force.
This is my conclusion after having taken the extreme step of actually reading the decision, which I had to do for someone else on Saturday morning anyway, as one of those commitments I mentioned. (Special thanks here to Andrea Berger for posting it and helping me find it. Read her post, too.) Although I’m not a Singaporean lawyer, the laws of Singapore and the United States both descend from the English legal tradition, and to an American lawyer, the concepts will seem familiar.
Lost amid the commentary is that fact that the latter part of the High Court’s decision affirmed Chinpo’s conviction and fine for breaking the Money Changing and Remittance Business Act, by remitting more than $40 million for various North Korean entities through its Bank of China account without a license. As the High Court made clear, those remittances went well beyond the volume of Chinpo’s nominal shipping business, and Chinpo was really acting as a shadow bank. (That the Bank of China’s lawyers aren’t combing through terabytes of information right now, in response to Treasury Department subpoenas about flagrant Know-Your-Customer violations and possible money laundering, may be the greatest crime of all.)
The High Court reversed the portion of Chinpo’s conviction for violating the Singapore’s circa-2010 regulation implementing the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions, because the prosecution failed to prove that Chinpo had reason to know that its remittances directly benefited North Korea’s nuclear program. That part of the result is both absurd and partially understandable. It’s absurd because the U.N. sanctions themselves required no such standards of proof in 2013, when they occurred. The Chinpo wire transfers financed the smuggling of weapons, in violation of an arms embargo in effect against North Korea under resolutions 1718 (paragraph 8) and 1874 (paragraphs 9 and 10). Now, here is what the Singaporean prosecutors had to work with in 2013 — a poorly drafted, ridiculously outdated, and incomplete rule:
12. No person in Singapore and no citizen of Singapore outside Singapore shall —
(a) provide any financial services; or
(b) transfer financial assets or resources, or other assets or resources,
that may reasonably be used to contribute to the nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related, or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Yes, that’s it. Not only does the regulation fail completely to prohibit financing of North Korea’s arms trade, it fails to incorporate the UNSCR 1718 arms embargo at all. There’s just no excuse for an advanced nation to have failed in this way, given that the embargo has been in effect since 2006. Which is why the decision was also partially understandable; after all, the court couldn’t very well allow Chinpo to be convicted for something the law didn’t yet prohibit. This is not to excuse the High Court’s ridiculously narrow reading of the regulation, and (given the nature of North Korea) the insurmountable evidentiary burdens the court applied to what was meant to be a due diligence obligation.
So what we have here is a flawed decision based on a poorly drafted, outdated, and now-superseded regulation by a government that likely didn’t want to interfere too much with Singapore’s lucrative commercial ties to North Korea or offend Chinese interests. No doubt, after the Panel of Experts traced the Chong Chon Gang money trail back to Singapore, some Grand Poobah in the Singapore government told the prosecutors to charge Chinpo with something. That poorly drafted regulation is all the prosecutors really had. (Another serious, if more forgivable, error is that by the time of the Chong Chon Gang seizure, UNSCR 2087 and UNSCR 2094, with its much more stringent financial provisions — see paragraphs 10-16 — had been in effect for five months, but Singapore still hadn’t updated its regulation.)
Still, if this sort of thing can happen in a modern, advanced, rule-bound place like Singapore, why should we expect better results from Indonesia, Tanzania, or Angola? The U.N. Security Council has now passed seven lengthy, often impenetrably worded, and overlapping resolutions strung together with confusing cross-references. It’s time to help the states with the lowest capacity to enforce those resolutions understand, translate, codify, enact, and enforce them. Model legislation is an essential first step, and only the U.S. can really lead that effort.