As the Trump administration looks to sanctions, including secondary sanctions, to gain the leverage to disarm North Korea, it is natural that North Korea watchers would try to gauge the potential for sanctions to impact Pyongyang’s finances. In a place where predictions of glasnost go to die, it is natural that they would measure what the regime puts on display, like the development of Pyongyang’s skyline. And regrettably, it is natural that any analysis whose research begins and ends with news clippings that are half-wrong or half-read, and that betrays little understanding of the sanctions authorities or how their enforcement has evolved, will be of nearly no predictive value whatsoever.
So it is with this contribution by Henri Féron for 38 North, which suggests that sanctions can’t work in 2017 based on the failure of sanctions that either didn’t exist or weren’t enforced between 2014 and 2016. (An online bio for Féron describes him as a post-doctoral research scholar specializing in Korean language who has previously studied law in China — hardly the best place to gain a useful understanding of what the U.N. resolutions require — but hey, I went to law school in Nebraska and I do this as a hobby, so there’s that.) 38 North summarizes Féron’s argument thusly:
The construction boom in Pyongyang, along with other indicators of improved economic performance such as food production and foreign trade, provide further evidence of the ineffectiveness of current economic sanctions. The North Korean economy appears to be beating sanctions thanks to Chinese aid and trade, as well as the reallocation of conventional defense spending to the civilian economy.
There are several problems with this argument, starting with the fact that there is no general blockade of trade with North Korea and never has been. Féron argues that stable food prices (which have risen sharply recently, but that’s the subject of another post) suggest that sanctions have failed, despite the fact that all U.N. and U.S. sanctions exempt food imports. Féron writes, “[c]omparatively speaking, our most reliable indicators are food production and trade statistics.” I’ll just pause and give you a chance to stop laughing now.
Worse, citing U.N. World Food Program data, he writes, “North Korea is now more or less back to the nutritional self-sufficiency of the 1980s.” But earlier this year, UN aid agencies said that 70 percent of North Koreans were undernourished, and in 2015, they said that 80 percent of North Korean households had “poor” or “borderline” food consumption. The U.N. World Food Program, Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF, and the U.N. Development Programme all continue to assist North Korea. Self-sufficiency indeed!
Féron cites the recent decline in defections to imply that Kim Jong-Un’s regime is more popular, but the article he cites correctly notes that this is really a function of increased border security. Féron knocks down a straw-man “narrative of destitution” about Pyongyang, but there is general agreement that Kim Jong-Un has improved material standards of living for Pyongyang’s one percent (though elite defections continue to rise for other reasons). In North Korea, the destitution has always fallen on the victims of a unilateral class war Pyongyang wages against the “expendable” ones in the countryside and the provinces.
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But Féron’s Exhibit A is Pyongyang’s recent construction boom. At the outset, construction is a dubious metric for the effectiveness of sanctions. There are no U.N. or U.S. sanctions on construction materials or equipment and never have been. As Féron notes, North Korea has plenty of cement (he might have added that it has plenty of sand, gravel and building stone, too). As a Rimjing-gang guerrilla journalist documented in 2015, Pyongyang builds its buildings using army construction laborers working on starvation rations, without modern equipment, and under grossly unsafe working conditions. Pyongyang probably had to import lighting and plumbing fixtures, tiles, and floor coverings, but it probably didn’t need as much foreign capital for its new construction as appearances alone would suggest.
On the outside, the new construction looks great — the sort of “progress” that would look impressive from the window of a train passing a second-rate Chinese factory town. Indeed, the main purpose of this facelift appears to have been to show North Korean elites, potential investors, foreign journalists, and gullible op-ed writers that sanctions can’t stop Kim Jong-Un:
The project is intended to show “the spirit of the DPRK standing up and keeping up with the world, despite all sorts of sanctions and pressure by the U.S. imperialists and their followers,” and “the truth that the DPRK is able to be well-off in its own way and nothing is impossible for it to do,” state-media quoted Kim as saying when he ordered the beginning of construction in March. [CBS]
Still, images can be deceiving — especially in Pyongyang. In December 2015, the “completed” apartments on Mirae Scientists’ Street had no power, no running water, no heat, unfinished interiors, unsafe construction, and broken elevators that made the upper floors of the high-rise apartment buildings uninhabitable (imagine hauling your own water up 30 stories, to think nothing of what you might have to haul back down if the sewage system fails). It’s a similar story at another showpiece, Ryomyong Street (see also).
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Could other sanctions provisions have applied to showpiece construction projects like Mirae Scientists’ Street and Ryomyong Street? Potentially. For example, there is evidence that other construction projects in Pyongyang, KKG Street and those revealed by this extraordinary new work of investigative journalism by Justin Rohrlich for NK News, had links to Bureau 39. Any dealings with Bureau 39 would be a clear sanctions violation today. Unfortunately, the world has been slow to designate Bureau 39, and even slower to enforce that designation. The U.N. didn’t designate Bureau 39 until March 2016, presumably because China blocked the designation until then. And even then, Treasury (to say nothing of the U.N., or China) would have hesitated to freeze any assets without a clear link between a particular construction project and a designated entity. A competent investigator with access to the right intelligence might find some link between a particular construction project and a sanctioned North Korean entity, but I don’t have that evidence, and Féron certainly doesn’t cite any.
Although much of the money for these building projects probably flowed through correspondent banks in New York, until very recently, U.S. sanctions were a case of trying to dam a river with a tennis net: in 2014, when Ri Jong-Ho was working for Bureau 39 in Dandong, there were just 43 North Korean entities designated (compared to 50 in Belarus and 161 in Zimbabwe) and (critically) no secondary sanctions — again, as I’ve been saying for years. The U.S. Treasury Department first designated Bureau 39 in 2010, five years after Treasury’s final rule about Banco Delta Asia detailed Bureau 39’s laundering of counterfeit currency. Treasury imposed some potentially broad sanctions under Executive Order 13687 in January of 2015, but has hardly used that authority to designate anyone. President Obama (reluctantly) signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act in February 2016. A ban on new investment in North Korea only came into effect in March 2016. Before any of the significant sanctions that might have halted it existed, tenants were already moving into Mirae Scientists’ Street. Dozens had probably moved out again.
The same is not true of Ryomong Street, which was only completed in the spring of this year. But as with Mirae Scientists’ Street, it isn’t clear what sanctions this would have violated without further investigation — investigation that no one was doing. I don’t see evidence of a clear link to Bureau 39 or another sanctioned entity in the open sources, and given how badly President Obama under-resourced the investigation of North Korea sanctions violations, he probably didn’t, either.
Simply designating “Bureau 39” by itself is meaningless. Bureau 39 doesn’t hold its bank accounts under “Bureau 39;” it hides them behind the names of front companies, shell companies, and various Chinese trading companies, co-conspirators, and patsies. With sufficient resources and talent, we could expose these companies and agents and freeze their assets. The work of the U.N. Panel of Experts, investigative journalists like Rohrlich and Mailey, and NGOs like C4ADS and Sayari Analytics has shown us how. But ask yourself: doesn’t it seem at all strange to you that the U.N., NGOs, and journalists keep exposing networks that our own government didn’t? If you’re a journalist or a congressional staffer, here’s a question you should ask the Treasury Department: how many full-time investigators and intel analysts are dedicated full-time to investigating North Korea?
If the necessary financing for Ryomyong Street wasn’t already done by 2016, President Obama might have tried to block those transactions as they flowed between Chinese commercial banks and U.S. correspondent banks, but as I’ve discussed ad infinitum here, Obama wasn’t willing to do that, except in one isolated case, well into the eleventh hour of his presidency. I could refer you to all of the pieces I’ve published documenting this policy of passive non-enforcement. I could do even better by citing Anthony Ruggiero’s exhaustively researched testimony for the House Financial Services Committee this week, or Dan De Luce’s real-time coverage of Obama throwing away his last chance to show some spine, or this, by Bill Powell for Newsweek, showing us how China abetted Pyongyang while Obama watched and did nothing:
A one-off case against a big Dandong-based holding company such as DHID is one thing. Beijing apparently didn’t protest too much when the Treasury issued its sanctions, apparently believing that it needs to show at least some willingness to pressure Pyongyang, even at the expense of one of China’s own firms. But several Trump appointees in the national security community are increasingly scathing about the efforts of both the Obama administration and Beijing to hobble Kim’s nukes. “As the North continued to make progress [toward an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuke], the U.S. and the U.N. tightened sanctions, it’s true,” says one Trump official. “But those were sanctions with a big caveat: They didn’t much apply to China, at least when China wanted to ignore them.” Another Trump official says the Obama team was focused on climate change as the key issue in bilateral relations with Beijing—not North Korea. “At no point was the sanctions regime against North Korea as effective as the sanctions were against Iran before they came to the [nuclear negotiating table],” says one senior Trump official, “and that’s almost entirely because of China.” [Newsweek]
President Trump took the Oath of Office in January. Then, he ordered a policy review that took four months, met with Xi Jinping in April, and gave him two more months before tweeting that China wasn’t helping. Around that time, the tenants of Ryomyong Street were first climbing the stairs to their new 50th-story lofts. In July, the Trump administration finally started targeting Pyongyang’s finances in earnest, including its use of Chinese banks to evade U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Even this is only a beginning of what will be necessary to how visible effects on the palace economy, which will likely take at least a year to show.
The lessons being: first, even the best 2017 sanctions can’t stop 2016 construction; second, one cannot measure the effect of sanctions through non-sanctioned commerce; and third, when offering expert analysis on any topic, there’s no substitute for some careful research. Féron is right that sanctions failed to prevent Kim Jong-Un from slapping up a lot of spiffy-looking buildings in Pyongyang, most of which did not immediately fall down. But in the end, that may not tell us much about the potential for aggressively enforced, well-targeted sanctions to present Pyongyang with some very hard choices.