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Senate Banking Committee advances the Otto Warmbier BRINK Act, Treasury blocks the Bank of Dandong

Last week, while I was writing my rave review for Donald Trump’s speech to the South Korean National Assembly, the Senate Banking Committee was working to put more tools in his hands to bankrupt the man he would never stoop to calling “short and fat.”* By a unanimous vote, the committee passed the newly renamed Otto Warmbier Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea (BRINK) Act, which I previously discussed here and here. The bill now awaits Senator McConnell’s nod to get on the full Senate calendar. The House is already looking at the text.

This being the Senate, an august deliberative body, the committee vote came after the majority and minority members reached an agreement on a compromise text. As a general rule, compromise amendments are like Star Wars sequels — never as good as the original, and usually a little worse with each iteration. In this case, however, the text actually seems to have improved in the negotiations, if you can believe that. (Next time someone asks you what’s in it for Kim Jong-un to show some restraint, tell them he might get less of this.)

[Chris Van Hollen (D, MD) and Pat Toomey (R, PA) were the bill’s original co-sponsors.]

Under the new bill, many of the discretionary sanctions authorities that were just added to section 104(b) of the NKSPEA by the KIMS Act would now become mandatory. Other new section 104(a) sanctions would mirror sanctions imposed by the U.N. Security Council in UNSCR 2371 and 2375. In addition to requiring the blocking of the bad actor’s assets, section 104(a) sanctions carry more other serious consequences, such as asset forfeiture, immigration sanctions, and the loss of government contracts.

I’m especially pleased that the NKSPEA’s sanctions on His Porcine Majesty’s kleptocracy will also become mandatory.

The most powerful provision, however, is section 111:

This imposes a range of secondary sanctions on banks that continue to process transactions for North Korea. The concept here is similar to what Ed Royce wanted to do back in 2013, in the original version of the NKSPEA (then called the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act). Section 201 of that bill allowed for a range of secondary sanctions against financial institutions that dealt with North Korean entities. At the time, however, the Obama administration’s Treasury Department thought that went too far, so instead, section 201 was replaced with the language that would later force the Obama administration to declare North Korea to be a primary money laundering concern, show some promising (if early) results in freezing North Korean accounts, and kill** the Bank of Dandong for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money.

Since I brought up the Bank of Dandong, last week wasn’t a good one for the BoD and its shareholders. Following a July Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and BoD’s protestations notwithstanding, Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network commenced primary ignition and issued a final rule blocking the BoD out of the financial system. FINCEN points out that not only did the BoD lose its access to the dollar system, it may also have lost its euro, Japanese yen, Hong Kong dollar, pound sterling, and Australian dollar correspondent accounts.

That’s going to leave a mark

I’ll believe the Treasury Department is really serious when it starts imposing fines like this one on banks, including big banks, that fail to meet their due diligence obligations to prevent North Korean money laundering. As the new Chinese curse goes, “May subpoenas rain down on your correspondents.”

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If secondary financial sanctions this sweeping were ahead of their time in 2013 politically speaking, today, liberal Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen, joined by moderate Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey, has written the toughest secondary financial sanctions on North Korea to date. Just so you get a sense of how far the consensus has shifted.

The BRINK Act sends a clear and unequivocal message to these banks and firms: you can do business with North Korea or you can do business with the United States, but if you choose to support the North Korean regime or their business associates, you will be held to account. [CNN.com, Senators Chris Van Hollen & Pat Toomey]

Stop me if you’ve heard anyone else argue this before:

Critics argue that, for more than two decades, the United States has unsuccessfully employed a mix of sanctions and economic incentives to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal and contain the threat. But our sanctions regime against North Korea is not nearly as tough as what we had in place against Iran, in the lead-up to Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Specifically, the United States has not, in a serious way, gone after the foreign banks that provide illicit support to North Korea and extend credit and financial services to companies engaged in illegal trade with the regime. This is a major hole in our sanctions regime, but one that our legislation would close.

The sanctions in the BRINK Act are known as “secondary sanctions,” because they apply to non-US entities. They target foreign banks and firms serving North Korean enterprises. This bill is modeled on the same secondary sanctions that helped to bring Iran to the negotiating table over its nuclear program.

The reasons for our approach are clear. North Korea’s economy is neither as weak nor as isolated as most people believe. While exact figures are unknown, its annual gross domestic product is estimated to be $40 billion. China accounts for nearly 90% of North Korea’s trade, while others, such as Malaysia, still maintain diplomatic ties.

The United Nations found that North Korea evades existing international sanctions and maintains access to the international financial system through a comprehensive network of front companies, many based in China. North Korea relies heavily on this network to directly support its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. Our aim is to cut off North Korea’s remaining access to the international financial system, deprive Kim Jong Un of the resources needed for his regime’s survival, and create the leverage necessary for successful nuclear negotiations.

Read the whole thing.

Section 115 of the bill directs the administration to team up with the Financial Action Task Force — which has just issued tough new guidance to financial institutions on implementing U.N. financial sanctions — to hunt down and freeze the slush funds of Kim Jong-un and his top goons. (See Anthony Ruggiero’s analysis of the FATF advisory and what that means.)

Other provisions prod U.N. member states to step up their enforcement game, ask Treasury to report on North Korea’s use of front and shell companies to hide its beneficial ownership interests, put stricter congressional controls on the licensing of transactions with North Korea, and make it easier for fund managers to divest from companies with investments in North Korea. Congress also asked for reports on North Korean money laundering and cyber capabilities.

However improbably, and despite the alleged dysfunction on Capitol Hill, on this issue, Congress is behaving in a bipartisan, statesmanlike, and diplomatic manner. It’s keeping up with the U.N. in passing implementing legislation, and it’s either forcing or helping the Treasury Department to act like the steward of the financial system that it needs to be for sanctions to work well enough to prevent another Korean War.

That assumes, of course, that the administration enforces this competently and aggressively. It’s not a good sign at a time like this to see the administration cut Treasury’s budget. It’s going to require some aggressive congressional oversight to make this work, but Democrats seem to be positioning themselves to “own” the sanctions issue if they see Trump slow down. Good for them. They can clearly see what the alternative would be.

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* Here at OFK, our position is that jokes about physical stature and body size are beneath our editorial standards. But as a former boss once said, a good lawyer can tell you the rules; a great lawyer can tell you the exceptions. So, by a narrow-yet-unanimous vote, the OFK Editorial Board has approved an amendment to the Style Guide to authorize the use of the term “His Porcine Majesty” for any hereditary, morbidly obese absolute ruler of a country where a third of the kids are stunted due to malnutrition while he exports seafood and other produce for hard currency.

** It’s possible that the Bank of Dandong could do what Banco Delta Asia did and survive for years as a glorified check-cashing / payday loan storefront, using only local currencies. The last time I checked PACER a few months ago, BDA was still in settlement negotiations with Treasury to have its 311 blacklisting lifted.

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Commence Primary Ignition: Treasury zaps the Bank of Dandong for laundering Kim Jong-Un’s money

And so, the “maximum pressure” we’ve been waiting for begins in earnest. Yesterday afternoon, the Treasury Department announced a series of legal actions against Chinese enablers of North Korea’s proliferation, smuggling, and money laundering. First, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control froze the assets of two businessmen and a shipping company. One of those businessmen, Sun Wei, was the sole shareholder of Mingzheng International Trading, the Chinese company targeted in this recent civil forfeiture action. The shipping company was sanctioned for smuggling luxury goods to North Korea, in violation of UN sanctions.

The more potentially significant action, however, was  Treasury/FINCEN’s action against a Chinese bank. The target was the Bank of Dandong, and the weapon was 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(5), otherwise known as the Fifth Special Measure of Section 311 of the Patriot Act — the same provision used against Banco Delta Asia in 2005. The action effectively makes the BoD a global pariah and cuts it off from the financial system.

[Alderaan shot first.]

Interestingly enough, if you had asked me to pick just one Chinese Bank to make an example of, I would have named the Bank of Dandong. Yes, the Bank of China was the most flagrant violator, but a large bank calls for a different strategy (which I’ll discuss below). Based on the open-source evidence, it was the BoD that had the most integration into Pyongyang’s palace economy. This 2013 report documented its ties to US- and UN-sanctioned Korea Kwangson Bank (KKBC). This report from early 2016 indicates that Chinese merchants trading with North Korea (temporarily) shifted away from the Bank of Dandong after the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2270. A few months later, the Justice Department indicted a Chinese company, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, for laundering money for KKBC through 12 Chinese banks, including the BoD. Just a few days before, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies had revealed that DHID had an equity stake in the BoD.

To this body of evidence, the Treasury Department now adds a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to support the 311 action. Treasury accuses the BoD of facilitating money laundering by trading companies that are fronts for North Korean banks and agencies designated for proliferation. Sorry for the long money quote, but it’s all worth reading:

Bank of Dandong serves as a gateway for North Korea to access the U.S. and international financial systems despite U.S. and UN sanctions….  For example, as of mid-February 2016, North Korea was using bank accounts under false names and conducting financial transactions through banks located in China, Hong Kong, and various southeast Asian countries. The primary bank in China was Bank of Dandong.

In early 2016, accounts at Bank of Dandong were used to facilitate millions of dollars of transactions on behalf of companies involved in the procurement of ballistic missile technology. Bank of Dandong also facilitates financial activity for North Korean entities designated by the United States and listed by the United Nations for WMD proliferation, as well as for front companies acting on their behalf.

In particular, Bank of Dandong has facilitated financial activity for Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation (KKBC), a North Korean bank designated by the United States and listed by the United Nations for providing financial services in support of North Korean WMD proliferators. As of May 2012, KKBC had a representative embedded at Bank of Dandong. Moreover, Bank of Dandong maintained a direct correspondent banking relationship with KKBC since approximately 2013, when another Chinese bank ended a similar correspondent relationship. As of early 2016, KKBC maintained multiple bank accounts with Bank of Dandong. 

Bank of Dandong has also facilitated financial activity for the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), a U.S.- and UN-designated entity. As of early 2016, a front company for KOMID maintained multiple bank accounts with Bank of Dandong. The President subjected KOMID to an asset blocking by listing it in the Annex of Executive Order 13382 in 2005, and the United States designated KOMID pursuant to Executive Order 13687 in January 2015 for being North Korea’s primary arms dealer and its main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.

FinCEN is concerned that Bank of Dandong uses the U.S. financial system to facilitate financial activity for KKBC and KOMID, as well as other entities connected to North Korea’s WMD and ballistic missile programs. Based on FinCEN’s analysis of financial transactional data provided to FinCEN by U.S. financial institutions pursuant to the BSA as well as other information available to the agency, FinCEN assesses that at least 17 percent of Bank of Dandong customer transactions conducted through the bank’s U.S. correspondent accounts from May 2012 to May 2015 were conducted by companies that have transacted with, or on behalf of, U.S.- and UN-sanctioned North Korean entities, including designated North Korean financial institutions and WMD proliferators.

In addition, U.S. banks have identified a substantial amount of suspicious activity processed by Bank of Dandong, including: (i) transactions that have no apparent economic, lawful, or business purpose and may be tied to sanctions evasion; (ii) transactions that have a possible North Korean nexus and include activity between unidentified companies and individuals and behavior indicative of shell company activity; and (iii) transactions that include transfers from offshore accounts with apparent shell companies that are domiciled in financial secrecy jurisdictions and banking in another country. [FINCEN NPRM]

For a brief discussion of the BoD’s rights to challenge this action before it officially becomes final in 60 days, see this post. The Bank of Dandong can’t say it wasn’t warned; in its notice, Treasury cites its November 2016 regulation at 31 C.F.R. 1010.659, calling on banks to exercise enhanced due diligence with regard to North Korean customers, and to deny North Korean banks direct or indirect access to the financial system. That regulation was promulgated to implement Treasury’s designation of North Korea as a jurisdiction of Primary Money Laundering Concern in November, which in turn was in response to section 201 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which effectively forced Treasury to make that designation.

Naturally, the principal congressional leaders behind passing the law that led to this result welcomed Treasury’s decision. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called the action “a big step,” adding, “The administration is right to target any around the world who act as financial lifelines to Kim Jong-un, and to give them a clear choice: You can do business with North Korea or with the U.S., but not both.” Royce also called on the Senate to pass his KIMS Act. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) issued a statement applauding the action and calling it long overdue.

It’s hard to believe that it was a complete coincidence that Treasury took this action while Moon Jae-In was in town. The message thus sent is that the U.S. and South Korea must be aligned on sanctions enforcement. We cannot have a repeat of 2005, when South Korea undermined the sanctions the U.S. imposed (Roh Moo-Hyun opened Kaesong, which became a $100-million-a-year subsidy for Kim Jong-Il, just as the Banco Delta Asia sanctions were achieving their effects). Someone in the White House clearly understands that we cannot make a coherent policy of sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin emphasized that yesterday’s action was directed at North Korea, not China, and expressed the hope that China would “continue to work with us” to pressure North Korea.

So noted.

What should we watch for next? First, for North Korean money men to step up their bulk cash smuggling game, or shift to non-dollar currencies or trade-based money laundering as sanctions dodges. The excellent Noon in Korea Twitter feed, for example, points to a Korean-language report that authorities in Vladivostok have seized bulk cash from North Korean money launderers who are apparently having trouble sending wire transfers (an increasingly rare case of Russia enforcing sanctions). Interestingly, Treasury says that BoD also maintains “euro, Japanese yen, Hong Kong dollar, pound sterling, and Australian dollar correspondent accounts that would not be affected by this action.” That’s why it will be important for State and Treasury to engage in some good financial diplomacy to get those third-country regulators to blacklist the BoD under their own authorities.

Also, look for the “death spiral” — North Korean money launderers who defect because they can’t pay their kick-up quotas because of sanctions, who then provide us more intelligence, leading to yet more sanctions. Rinse and repeat. (We might as well put out the word now that they’ll get better living arrangements if they bring their ledgers and laptops.) For a fascinating interview of one of those money launderers who defected after the Jang Song-Thaek purge, read this. North Korean money launderers’ fear of coming home to Pyongyang short-handed may be one of our intelligence agencies’ best tools to be a major player in the sanctions game. For reasons I explained here, that death spiral could pose a serious threat to the survival of the regime.

We should also watch for local regulators stepping in to take over the Bank of Dandong to prevent a run and shield other local banks from secondary effects. We should look for more reports that other Chinese banks are closing North Korean accounts. We should also look for correspondent banks in the United States to raise their scrutiny of Chinese banks that try to clear dollar transactions on behalf of suspicious or poorly documented customers. If FINCEN plays its cards right, Chinese banks that don’t step up their compliance game may find it difficult to clear their transactions. For more on how EU and New York state regulators have applied similar strategies, see this post.

Finally, we should look for China to send more mysterious convoys to North Korea and engage in conspicuous sanctions violations to deter any more actions by Treasury. We must be prepared to escalate in kind. Chinese retaliation may be Trump’s excuse to do what some in his administration have wanted to do all along — hit China with, say, steel tariffs. Fortunately, Trump has backed off from a threat to withdraw from NAFTA. And needless to say, the worst possible time to drop or renegotiate the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea is when China is bullying it with unilateral trade sanctions. After all, you can’t wage a trade war with everyone at once. If you trade less with China and you aren’t willing to eat a recession, you have to trade more with someone else. Given that most of the economies that compete with China as providers of low-wage labor or high-technology manufacturing (or both) are in East Asia, Trump should consider making some face-saving changes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and reviving it as part of a long-term plan to encourage an emigration of manufacturers from China to friendlier venues in Southeast Asia and Japan. While I’m not a fan of protectionism, Xi Jinping’s behavior in the South China Sea, North Korea, and Hong Kong has also convinced me that “peaceful rise” is a self-serving delusion, and that our economic interest in robust trade with China is outweighed by the threat that we’re selling Xi the rope to hang us with.

We also need a strategy for banks like the Bank of China that may think they’re too big to sanction. The Bank of Dandong is expendable, but the Bank of China is not. Unlike the Bank of Dandong, however, the Bank of China has deep links to the U.S. financial system, is under pressure from the Chinese Finance Ministry to improve its anti-money laundering compliance, and has a branch in New York (which regularly checks in on this humble blog for … for posts like this one, I suppose). The better approach for Treasury, then, would be to use FINCEN to treat the BoC’s North Korea ties as an anti-money laundering compliance problem and, in the event the feds smell something fishy, issue subpoenas with a mind toward doing to the BoC what it did to BNP Paribas — impose heavy fines and a deferred prosecution agreement for data stripping and flunking Know-Your-Customer obligations. That is to say, there is no such thing as “too big to sanction,” merely different strategies for different targets. Another advantage of a deferred prosecution agreement, of course, is that it can force a bank to cooperate by providing financial intelligence — intelligence the feds can use to take action against other targets.

Some of these effects should be evident within the next week or two. The effects that matter most, however, are on the stability of the North Korean system. To have any chance at all for a negotiated denuclearization of North Korea, we will have to force the regime to choose between its nukes and its survival. My guess is we’ll see effects of that kind within a year or two if — and only if — we continue to press the financial, law enforcement, and diplomatic campaign needed to starve the regime of funds.

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Chinese banks are cracking down on N. Korean money laundering again. Will it last this time?

Several news sources are reporting that Chinese banks, particularly in China’s northeast, have started to freeze or close accounts held by North Korean individuals and businesses. The Daily NK, citing unnamed local sources, was the first to report this potentially important development. It says both large state-owned banks (such as the China Construction Bank) and regional banks (such as Pudong Bank) recently banned all North Koreans from opening new accounts and ordered the closure of existing accounts. It also quotes a March 2017 report by Radio Free Asia that “[p]rivate Chinese banks are beginning to close bank accounts held by North Korean nationals” and that “North Korean laborers earning foreign currency in China have been issued an emergency alert.”

Kyodo News, citing “sources familiar with the situation,” says that the new measures have made it “nearly impossible to do business between the two countries.” It reports that the Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China branches in Yanji, have all banned North Koreans from opening accounts. The banks have not yet frozen the accounts, meaning that the North Koreans can still withdraw cash, but they can’t make deposits or remittances. According to an unnamed employee of one of the banks, “This is being influenced by international sanctions against North Korea.”

Kyodo speculates that either “China may have become more serious about curbing its nuclear ambitions,” or that the measures were “intended to help major Chinese banks avoid being hit by sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries,” like the Bank of Dandong was. Interestingly, it also attributes a 75 percent decline in North Korea’s imports of refined petroleum products over three months, and a corresponding rise in fuel prices inside North Korea, to the fact that “North Koreans were having difficulty paying for petroleum product imports because of the banking restrictions.”

Reuters, citing a bank teller in Liaoning, reports that the China Construction Bank “completely prohibited business with North Korea” starting on August 28th. A customer service representative for the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China also told Reuters that the bank “had stopped opening accounts for North Koreans” and (for good measure) Iranians on July 16th, but didn’t explain further. Those dates closely follow a series of forfeiture complaints, seizures, and designations by the Justice and Treasury Departments, most of them targeting financial flows through Chinese banks, involving North Korean front companies, which turn out to be less well hidden than many “experts” had assumed.

The Bank of China, which became a bête noire for Congress much earlier than other Chinese banks over revelations that its Singapore branch willfully helped Chinpo Shipping facilitate money laundering (and indirectly, arms smuggling) for His Porcine Majesty, stopped allowing North Koreans to open accounts at the end of last year. Or so says an unnamed teller at the BoC’s Dandong branch, who adds that the BoC also froze existing North Korean accounts. A teller at the Agricultural Bank of China branch in Dandong also said that BoC was refusing to open new accounts for North Koreans.

The Financial Times also reports that “multiple bank branches,” including those of China’s big five banks, “had imposed a freeze on new accounts” for North Korean individuals and companies, and that some of the banks were also “cleaning out” existing North Korean accounts and banning North Koreans from making new deposits. Officials at all of the banks refused to comment.

Both the FT and the Daily NK note that the banks’ new measures exceed what new U.N. sanctions require, but all of the reports fail to note that these actions would be completely consistent with stricter U.S. financial regulation on North Korean money laundering, along with the aforementioned recent actions by the Treasury and Justice departments, showing that the feds can trace North Korean transactions through specific Chinese banks — including those named in these reports — and are willing to take legal action against them. Some sources told the FT that corporate told them to freeze North Korean accounts in August; others said they were told in January.

Unfortunately, the Daily NK reports that North Koreans affected include not only “consular officials” and state trading companies, but also “laborers,” who may be either illegal (and increasingly scarce) migrant workers or state-contracted slave laborers (the report didn’t specify). Either way, that’s an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of what would be an extremely important development — if it lasts. The FT quotes a Chinese professor of North Korea studies, who puts a brave face on the actions, saying that the actions benefit China, and that “China takes sanctions very seriously.” Stop laughing, dammit — this is a serious, adult conversation about banking regulation.

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The FT calls this “unprecedented,” but it really isn’t (of the five news sources I cite here, only the Daily NK gets this). There is, of course, the example of Banco Delta Asia and what we too easily forget — the Bush administration’s global campaign of financial diplomacy that persuaded banks around the world to close North Korean accounts. We now know that that strategy put Kim Jong-Il’s regime under severe financial strain, until Bush lost his nerve, lifted the pressure, and exchanged invaluable sanctions relief for a handful of worthless North Korean promises.

Then, in 2013, after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, after Treasury sanctioned the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank, and after Ed Royce first introduced the bill that would later become the NKSPEA, which mandates secondary sanctions, big Chinese banks began to freeze and close North Korean accounts. It didn’t last, because the banks soon saw that Xi Jinping wanted those accounts open more than Barack Obama wanted them closed. The same pattern repeated itself in early 2016, and again (as Justice Department filings later showed) it was right back to business as usual a few month later, again because the Obama administration wasn’t willing to back its sanctions with enforcement actions.

Is this time any different? The answer depends on why the banks are doing this. As noted, what the banks are doing here doesn’t exactly align with what the U.N. resolutions require, but it aligns perfectly with what I’d expect inexperienced Chinese compliance officers to do to protect their banks from rising legal risks under U.S. banking and sanctions laws. In this post, I explained the importance of distinguishing the interests and actions of the Chinese government from those of individual Chinese banks, which are actually global corporations with global exposure. In other words, “Chinese” banks may be bending to Treasury’s will for the same basic reason that U.S. tech companies have collaborated with Chinese censors. My belief that the Chinese security establishment is fundamentally hostile to U.S. interests and thus willfully weaponizing North Korea remains unmoved. On balance, it seems more likely that the banks are doing this to protect their own reputations, credit ratings, and share prices — just as the Chinese Finance Ministry wants them to, and just as the Defense and Foreign ministries don’t.

Also, when is the last time an American Secretary of the Treasury said anything like this?

“If China doesn’t follow these sanctions, we will put additional sanctions on them and prevent them from accessing the U.S. and international dollar system — and that’s quite meaningful,” Mnuchin said during an event at CNBC’s Delivering Alpha conference in New York on Tuesday. [….]

“North Korea economic warfare works,” Mnuchin said. “We sent a message that anybody that wanted to trade with North Korea — we would consider them not trading with us.” [Bloomberg]

Next, read this excerpt from the written testimony of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Marshall Billingslea before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. Billingslea first explains that Treasury works closely with U.S. allies, the intelligence community, and the State Department to “conduct detailed forensic investigation and analysis” to “deny North Korea its current, principal source of funds.” He goes on to say that while we prefer to have Beijing’s voluntary cooperation, we’re also perfectly willing to hit Chinese targets we don’t get it.

For instance, on August 22, we struck at the heart of North Korea’s illegal coal trade with China.  Treasury designated 16 individuals and entities, including three Chinese companies that are among the largest importers of North Korean coal.  We estimate that collectively these companies were responsible for importing nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of North Korean coal between 2013 and 2016.  These funds are used to support the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea, including its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  On top of that, we know that some of these companies were also buying luxury items and sending an array of products back to the North Korean regime.  On August 22 we sent two clear messages.  The first was to North Korea: we intend to deny the regime its last remaining sources of revenue, unless and until it reverses course and denuclearizes.  The second message was to China.  We are capable of tracking North Korea’s trade in banned goods, such as coal, despite elaborate evasion schemes, and we will act even if the Chinese government will not. [….]

China is even more central to a successful resolution of the crisis caused by Kim Jong-Un.  China accounts for at least 90 percent of North Korea’s exports.  North Korea is overwhelmingly dependent upon China for both trade and access to the international financial system.  China’s full and effective enforcement of UN sanctions is therefore essential.  Unfortunately, I cannot assure the Committee today that we have seen sufficient evidence of China’s willingness to truly shut down North Korean revenue flows, expunge the North Korean illicit actors from its banking system, and expel the North Korean middlemen and brokers who are establishing webs of front companies.  We will continue to work with the Chinese to maximize economic pressure on North Korea, but we will not hesitate to act unilaterally.  If China wishes to avoid future measures, such as those imposed on Bank of Dandong or the various companies sanctioned for illegal trade practices, then it urgently needs to take demonstrable public steps to eliminate North Korea’s trade and financial access. [Treasury Dep’t]

Then, watch his testimony on video.

Mr. Billingslea shows great promise. Let’s hope we have the next Stuart Levey or Juan Zarate on our hands, because we’ve never needed one more than we do now.

Of course, it’s The Boss, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, who has been pushing for this strategy for years. Two laws, one presidential election, and three nuclear tests later, Royce looks to have finally gotten his way. Speaking at a hearing of his Committee yesterday, Royce called on the feds to “target major Chinese banks, including Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. and China Merchants Bank Co., for aiding Kim’s regime.” Royce was referring to a letter he sent to Mnuchin listing some of the banks that keep showing up in Justice Department indictments, forfeiture complaints, and seizure warrants as having effectively provided sanctioned North Korean banks with indirect correspondent account services in violation of this Treasury Department regulation, and asked the Treasury Department to sanction them.

Personally, I don’t expect Treasury to do anything as blunt or binary as a total asset freeze or a 311 action to most of those banks (on that point, Billingslea told the Committee that the 311 action on the Bank of Dandong had “a very clear effect” on its operations, but didn’t elaborate). Instead, I expect Treasury to start auditing the big banks and their correspondents for compliance with its new North Korea-specific regulation, with an eye toward civil penalties and fines like those imposed against European banks that skimped or cheated on anti-money laundering compliance on behalf of Iran and other sanctioned countries. Those fines often amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars (or, in the case of BNP Paribas, $9 billion). There may be such a thing as “too big to fail,” but there is no such thing as “too big to fine.”

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The Daily NK reports that small traders are already adapting to the new measures by going to a cash-based business model. Reporters are fond of saying that Pyongyang can easily evade financial sanctions by carrying around briefcases full of cash, but that’s mistaken on several levels. First, a typical briefcase only holds just over $2 million, which is enough to fuel the sort of cross-border trade in food and consumers goods that we shouldn’t want to stop, but hardly an efficient way for a Syrian arms client or Burmese middleman to pay a KOMID dealer for a shipment of machine tools or vacuum dryers. Needless to say, it’s not nearly enough to feed a million-man army or sustain an entire government. After all, China may not really care about policing bulk cash smuggling — notwithstanding its occasional, short-lived pretenses to the contrary — but countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka do.

That is to say, one potential outcome of these restrictions could be to break up larger, regime-controlled trading blocs in favor of smaller traders whose wares are more likely to end up in the homes and bellies of the poor. That would be a largely positive development. Our goal should not be a complete embargo of North Korea, which is why I was actually relieved that the U.N. didn’t impose a total fuel ban in its latest sanctions resolution. Our goals ought to be to expose and destroy Pyongyang’s state-controlled overseas trading networks, to freeze its cash reserves (which sit in Chinese banks, and which Pyongyang may be depleting rapidly), to de-fund its military and security forces to give the North Korean people a little breathing space and freedom from fear, and to create the “death spiral” that will cause money launderers who can’t make their kick-up payments to defect and bring us yet more valuable financial intelligence, which will help us find and freeze yet more assets.

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Maximum pressure watch: The Dandong Zhicheng warrants foreshadow N. Korea-related indictments

Last fall, as America was consumed by (depending on your state of residence) post-election trauma or celebratory gunplay, China blew past the North Korean coal import caps it had just agreed to at the U.N., and the Obama administration issued what would be some of its final North Korea sanctions designations — of Daewon Industries (a coal exporter subordinate to the North Korean military) and Kangbong Trading Corporation (a coal exporter subordinate to the Munitions Industry Department and involved in the development of North Korea’s ballistic missiles).

At the time, I suggested that the administration might have shown a belated willingness to enforce the coal cap that China would not. A few months later, the Trump administration designated Paeksol Trading Company, a third coal exporter that answers to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the agency that carries out Pyongyang’s foreign intelligence operations, terrorism, and cyberattacks, and some of its arms smuggling.

The real significance of these three coal designations was not the amount of money that Kangbong, Daewon, and Paeksol might have been laundering through the United States, although Americans tend to underestimate such things. Their real significance is that by designating these three entities, the Justice and Treasury departments were laying down a marker for anyone who was knowingly dealing with them, for violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, money laundering, or conspiracy. What’s that, you say? It doesn’t matter if there’s no one here to arrest? Not to worry. The smarter strategy need not burden the taxpayers with feeding and housing crooked Chinese traders and bankers; it can be even more effective to seize their ill-gotten gains, bankrupt them, terrify other bankers into meeting their due diligence obligations, and depositing said gains into either of two U.S. government forfeiture funds that pay for the cost of other law enforcement operations.

That is to say, I don’t know how Donald Trump will make Mexico pay for the wall, but I do know how he can make the Chinese banks pay for bankrupting Kim Jong-Un.

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By now, it is now clear that Treasury’s designations of the North Korean coal exporters were only the first steps, and that there is substance, strategy, and policy behind the Trump administration’s talk of “maximum pressure.” The first clear sign came last month, when the Justice Department sued to forfeit almost $2 million Mingzheng International Trading Limited laundered for the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea (FTB). A few weeks later, it cut the Bank of Dandong off from the financial system for laundering money for North Korean arms dealer KOMID and Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation, an FTB subsidiary. (Treasury blocked KKBC and FTB in 2009 and 2013, respectively, making it illegal to do business with them inside the United States, though corrupt trading companies stepped up to help them access the dollar system indirectly, for commissions of up to 25 percent per transaction). We can now see the feds’ emerging strategy taking shape — to bankrupt the Chinese trading companies that fill His Porcine Majesty’s coffers and make them toxic to the entire financial industry.

North Korea’s latest missile test changes the administration’s calculus, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea security expert at the American Enterprise Institute. He expects the White House to accelerate its sanctions against Chinese firms.

A central aim of the strategy of freezing out a Chinese bank from the U.S. financial system is to chill transactions by other Chinese institutions. Access to U.S. financial markets and the dollar are critical for trade and finance around the globe. But for that effort to be perceived as a credible, said Mr. Eberstadt, the administration will have to list other Chinese banks to instill broader fear.

“If I wanted to send a message, I’d probably send several postcards,” Mr. Eberstadt said.

Analysts and senior officials from two previous administrations say the existing sanctions regime against North Korea have so far been elementary compared with the thicket of actions applied against Iran at the height of the Obama administration’s punitive actions against Tehran. That effort pushed the country into recession and persuaded the country to negotiate, although many foreign-policy experts question the effectiveness of the subsequent deal the U.S. reached with Iran. [WSJ, Ian Talley]

Then, last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unsealed this seizure warrant for funds of Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Materials Company that entered eight U.S.-based correspondent banks. According to the warrant, Dandong Zhicheng processed $700 million in prohibited North Korea-linked transactions through those eight correspondents since 2009, including $52 million in the last seven months alone. Yes, that’s right — Pyongyang was laundering its money through our banks and right under our noses all along, just like I’ve been saying.

Tantalizingly, the warrant cites a cites a grand jury subpoena that isn’t published on PACER, most likely because it’s still sealed under Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which protects the secrecy of grand jury material. This particular warrant is a “damming warrant,” a tool prosecutors use when they have probable cause to seize evidence or contraband that regularly transits through a specified place, even if it isn’t there at the moment (such as drugs through a dealer’s P.O. box, or funds through a money launderer’s account). It means that money goes into, but not out, of the account subject to the warrant. In this case, the damming warrant lasted 14 days, which may be as long as a depositor would continue to dump money into a bank account before wondering why his checks weren’t clearing.

I found the names of the correspondent banks on PACER so that wouldn’t have to: Bank of America, Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas, Citibank, Bank of New York Mellon, HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, Standard Chartered Bank, and Wells Fargo. So far, the feds aren’t directly targeting those banks for legal action, and neither the banks nor the feds are saying anything else about that, but read on. You’ll also see in footnote 5 of the court’s order that the feds have now begun to make good use of the NKSPEA; evidently, the prosecutors cited section 104(a)(8) it in their warrant application.

By now, the more astute readers among you have picked up on the familiarity of Dandong Zhicheng’s name. No, this isn’t the Chinese network exposed in C4ADS’s report (and mostly undone by the Justice Department’s indictment and forfeiture complaint) last year. That was Dandong Hongxiang (or DHID). Dandong Zhicheng (or DZMM) is the Chinese network exposed by C4ADS’s most recent report, just last month.

In 2016, a single company, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co. Ltd. 丹东至诚金属材料有限公司, reportedly accounted for 9.19% of total North Korean exports to China. Established in July 2005, just as North Korean coal exports began to increase as a percentage of total exports, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co. Ltd. is a commodity company based in Dandong, China. The company’s archived website states that, as of April 6, 2016, it was recording annual sales of US$250 million, mainly of North Korean coal. This fact is recorded in trade data: 97% of the company’s imports were of North Korean coal. The company’s rapid growth and subsequent market position today is best described by a 2013 statement by one of the company’s traders, “The golden time for high profit has ended. It is now difficult to expand the market share further, and small players are out of the game.” Since 2014, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co. Ltd. has reportedly been the top overall importer from North Korea in China. [C4ADS]

If C4ADS is right that North Korea’s financial networks are centralized, limited, and vulnerable, the Justice and Treasury departments can damage or destroy the Chinese conglomerates that link Pyongyang to the financial system. To hear C4ADS tell it, DZMM is the single biggest Chinese importer of coal and other products from North Korea. Reuters backs that up by citing a 2013 online profile for DZMM, which claims that it imported $250 million worth of North Korean coal that year. By contrast, UNSCR 2321 capped North Korea’s total annual coal exports at $400 million. Thus, DZMM is almost certainly Pyongyang’s single largest coal customer and one of its key links to the global economy (no matter how many “experts” say that Pyongyang is already too isolated to sanction or that those links are too well hidden to find).

Nothing in the damming warrant mentions Kangbong, Daewon, or Paeksol, but it’s almost a sure bet that at least one of them is having some cash flow problems today, if not all three. The fact that the warrant reveals that a grand jury has been empaneled is also telling. Reuters got someone at DZMM to answer the phone, but they wisely refused to comment. If the cliché is correct that you can indict a ham sandwich, we should expect to see an indictment unsealed in the coming weeks or months, and we’ll learn the names of DZMM’s banks.

Asked about the issue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang reiterated that any infringements of U.N. resolutions on North Korea would be dealt with according to Chinese law, and that China opposed “long-armed jurisdiction”. [Reuters]

That is to say, China is opposed to unilateral sanctions, except when it isn’t. I can’t recall when I’ve ever heard China sound so upset and concerned about the prospect of paying a penalty for Pyongyang’s behavior.

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When the feds indicted Dandong Hongxiang last September, they hastened to add that the banks were not suspected of any wrongdoing. How much legal jeopardy are the banks in this time? Potentially, plenty. The court issued the DZMM warrant in May, so presumably, the affected transactions would have come after Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) issued this new regulation, based on its finding that North Korea is a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern. The FINCEN regulation requires banks to cut North Korean financial institutions off from both direct and indirect access to the financial system, and requires due diligence of banks processing transactions to that end. Clearly, the banks should not have processed transactions for designated North Korean entities — including the FTB, KKBC, Daewon, Paeksol, or Kangbong. This time, DZMM’s Chinese banks and their U.S.-based correspondents both face higher legal burdens due to the new FINCEN regulation. The amount of jeopardy depends on how apparent DZMM’s links to North Korea were, or alternatively, how many hard questions they asked DZMM and each other about their customers.

What’s clear, regardless of the outcome, is that the banking industry has to step up its compliance game. And judging by the clarity of the message the feds are finally sending, I expect it already is.

Have all the shoes dropped? By no means. A grand jury is (or was) in session, indictments are thus more likely than not, the feds have plenty of other options short of that, and according to the Wall Street Journal, their strategy has backing at the highest levels of the administration. Our government is now promising — and taking steps to implement — a secondary boycott of North Korea’s enablers around the world, Nikki Haley is telling countries that they cannot trade with both the U.S. and North Korea, and the U.S. is moving to combine its economic power with that of South Korea and Japan (collectively, China’s three largest trading partners). Yes, China and Russia are stalling approval of a new U.N. sanctions resolution, but I’ve long felt that we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns from new U.N. sanctions anyway. What’s needed now is strict enforcement of the existing sanctions and anti-money laundering authorities, and that’s what I’ve just been talking about here.

Last year was a bad year for North Korean banks. Although the effects of that still aren’t clear, this year promises to be much worse for them. And we haven’t even gotten to the tools the Senate is about to give the feds.

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WSJ: Feds may indict North Koreans in Bangladesh Bank fraud

This story just gets more interesting by the day:

Federal prosecutors are building cases that would accuse North Korea of directing one of the biggest bank robberies of modern times, the theft of $81 million from Bangladesh’s account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York last year, according to people familiar with the matter.

The charges, if filed, would target alleged Chinese middlemen who prosecutors believe helped North Korea orchestrate the theft, the people said.

The current cases being pursued may not include charges against North Korean officials, but would likely implicate North Korea, people close to the process said. [Wall Street Journal, Aruna Viswanatha and Nicole Hong]

Traditionally, robbery has meant theft by means of force or intimidation. I thought this case sounded like a better fit for bank fraud until I read the Criminal Code section on bank robbery, which is much broader than the common law definition and covers the whole life cycle of the criminal course of conduct.

The FBI’s Los Angeles Field Office and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Central District of California have the lead, which means the indictments would most likely issue in the Central District of California (and consequently, the Ninth Circuit). It’s not an ideal place to pick venue if you’re the government. The USAO for the Southern District of New York is also investigating other bank fraud cases it suspects of being the work of the same North Korean hacking group, known as “Lazarus.”

As I noted in my report on North Korea’s sponsorship of terrorism, the U.S. government thinks the Reconnaissance General Bureau (which is designated by both U.S. Treasury and the U.N. Security Council) did the Sony cyber attack. Recent reports have also linked the code used in the Bangladesh fraud to the code used in the Sony attack. That would make the RGB a prime suspect in both attacks, which means it would have been a violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (IEEPA) for anyone to knowingly engage in dollar transactions with the RGB’s agents after August 30, 2010, when that agency was first designated.

If charges are filed against alleged middlemen in the Bangladesh theft, they are expected to be similar to charges unsealed in September against a Chinese businesswoman, Ma Xiaohong, some of these people said.

That makes sense. The “Chinese middlemen” could be charged with violating the IEEPA and money laundering whether the feds can pin the bank fraud on the North Koreans or not. Here’s my post on the Ma Xiaohong/Dandong Hongxiang case, with links to the indictment and the civil forfeiture complaint.

There is, apparently, a “minority view” among the feds that the North Koreans may have sold the code to third parties without being directly involved. Depending on the evidence, that might still be a crime — most likely conspiracy to commit bank fraud or a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, or aiding and abetting one of those crimes. That might even be a smarter charging strategy.

The report also says the Treasury Department may freeze the assets of those under investigation (I’d guess under Executive Order 13722, implementing the NKSPEA, or EO 13757, Obama’s eleventh-hour cyber executive order).

A decade ago, the feds were ready to indict North Korean officials for counterfeiting, but political pressure from the State Department got the case shelved — permanently. That was the George W. Bush administration. I don’t get the impression that the Trump administration would do any such favors for Kim Jong-un.

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U.N. report: SWIFT banking network violated North Korea asset freeze

Since last year, this blog has covered SWIFT’s continued provision of financial messaging services to North Korean banks, despite suspicions that North Korea was involved in stealing almost $100 million from the Bangladesh Bank by hacking into SWIFT’s messaging software. Later, I wrote about an effort in the last Congress to ban North Korean banks from SWIFT, mirroring a sanction that was one of our most effective measures against Iran. SWIFT is effectively the postal service of the financial system, sending instructions between banks to credit and debit accounts to facilitate payments. Losing SWIFT access makes it slow, costly, and inefficient for a bank to operate.

The U.N. Panel of Experts’ latest report, released over the weekend, now confirms that SWIFT continued to provide services to three North Korean banks — Bank of East Land, Korea Daesong Bank, and Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation, the object of this recent Justice Department indictment — long after those banks were designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department. Worse, the Belgian government authorized that. Generally speaking, both sets of designations require the freezing of any of the target’s assets, and prohibit any action that facilitates the target’s transfer of property or interests in property.

248. In response to inquiries by the Panel, SWIFT confirmed to the Belgian authorities that it provided financial messaging services to designated banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As part of its procedure for doing so, SWIFT requests authorization from the Government to receive the moneys owed for the services. Upon receipt of such authorization, SWIFT receives payment for its services from the designated banks.  The payments are then entered in its books and recorded as revenue. The Belgian authorities have authorized SWIFT to receive the amounts set out in tables 13 and 14 from designated banks in exchange for the provision of financial messaging services, the provision of the SWIFT handbook, training in the use of the SWIFT network and maintenance costs.

SWIFT stopped providing services to four other North Korean banks — Amroggang Development Banking Corporation, Daedong Credit Bank, Tanchon Commercial Bank, and Korea United Development Bank — not because SWIFT was even minimally principled, but because “those banks themselves requested SWIFT to do so.”

Paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 requires all Member States, and all persons subject to their jurisdiction, to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of” designated entities. The whole point of financial messaging services is to make economic resources available. I can’t for the life of me see how financial messaging on behalf of designated North Korean banks is anything but a clear violation of 1718.

The unavoidable fact of SWIFT messaging is that it enables banks to effect financial transfers. Thus, messaging services that facilitate designated banks’ financial transactions violate a Member State’s duty (in this case, Belgium’s) to “prevent” the funds “from being made available” to designated entities, per paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 (2013), and paragraph 10 of UNSCR 2270 (2016). To authorize the acceptance of payment from designated DPRK entities would permit those entities to purchase goods and services and access the global economy, which would contravene the plain meaning of an asset freeze. That’s exactly what Belgium and SWIFT did here. Bear in mind that last summer, the Justice Department indicted Dandong Hongxiang for using an off-the-books ledger system to move funds for one of the very same banks.

Then, there is the question of whether SWIFT provided “financial services” to North Korean banks. In relevant part, Paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 requires Member States to “prevent the provision of financial services . . . by their nationals or entities organized under their laws . . . of any financial or other assets or resources . . . that could contribute to” activities prohibited by the Security Council’s resolutions. By citing Paragraph 8 (d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), this provision specifically applies to entities that have been designated by the Security Council.

Now, I take it that SWIFT’s highly-paid lawyers and lobbyists (at least, more highly paid than me) have gone to great lengths to persuade people that financial messaging services aren’t “financial services.” In paragraph 249 of the Panel’s report, Belgium cites domestic and EU law to that effect. At best, that’s a valiant effort to make chicken salad from chicken shit. To its credit, the Panel didn’t buy that, although it focused on a different angle — the receipt of fees by SWIFT from North Korean banks.

The Panel notes that, in the absence of a determination by the Committee that these payments fall under the exemptions in paragraphs 9 (a) and/or (b) of resolution 1718 (2006), the receipt of funds from a designated entity is a violation of the asset freeze pursuant to paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraphs 8 and 11 of resolution 2094 (2013).

Myself, I’m much less concerned about the minuscule fees SWIFT received — a few thousand dollars — than the (undoubtedly, much larger) sums SWIFT’s messaging services helped those designated banks to move.

With U.N. resolutions, we’re lucky if many states’ officials read them at all. For the resolutions to have any chance to work as intended, thousands of officials in hundreds of member states have to interpret and apply them consistently. Not all of those officials are banking lawyers. Pedantic interpretations of resolutions that fly in the face of their plain meaning are a recipe for exceptionalism. That’s what happens when a Member State’s interpretation of its domestic law is allowed to contravene the plain meaning and purpose of the resolutions.

Belgium, of all places, now finds itself cast as a unilateralist rogue state defying U.N. resolutions and flirting with money laundering. Given SWIFT’s influence on both sides of the Atlantic, it probably saw itself as above the law. There is nothing on SWIFT’s website reacting to that revelation at the time of posting. But with the truth of SWIFT’s enabling of dirty North Korean banks now revealed, it’s hard for me to believe that it will be business as usual. At a bare minimum, I’d expect SWIFT to disconnect the three designated banks. The next move may well be up to Congress. For SWIFT, that’s a lot of risk to take to feed the hand that bites them.

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Update:

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For North Korean banks, 2016 has been like that Corleone baptism montage

Years from today, North Korean bankers will remember 2016 as their annus horribilis. In February, a month after the North’s fourth nuclear test, Congress passed, and the President signed, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Section 201 of the new law all but compelled the Treasury Department to designate North Korea a Primary Money Laundering Concern under section 311 of the Patriot Act. Section 311 allows for a menu of special measures to protect the financial system against offenders, but in March, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, requiring member states to cut their correspondent relations with North Korean banks. That set the stage for Treasury to invoke the fifth and toughest of those measures, denying North Korean banks direct and indirect correspondent account services and isolating them from the international financial system. By then, the Financial Action Task Force had also called on banks and finance ministries around the world to apply “countermeasures” against North Korean money laundering.

As of January 2016, just eight North Korean banks’ assets had been blocked by the Treasury Department, including the Foreign Trade Bank and Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, or KKBC. Over the course of 2016, eight more North Korean banks would be blocked, six of them last Friday alone: North East Asia Bank, Koryo Credit Development Bank, Rason International Commercial Bank, Kumgang Bank, and Koryo Bank. That’s as close as financial regulation gets to this:

For banks that were already designated and had been slipping their payments through the net, events have also taken a darker turn. For years, Korea Kwangsong Bank accessed the financial system illegally through a Chinese conglomerate, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development. They would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling (and also, brilliant) kids at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, who used a shoestring budget and open-source intelligence to expose their international money-laundering operation. Shortly after C4ADS released its report, Treasury froze DHID’s assets, and the Justice Department indicted DHID and filed a complaint to forfeit its accounts in a dozen Chinese banks. 

If the Chinese banking industry is North Korea’s financial Abbottabad, the SEALs have begun to break down the doors of its safe haven. Treasury has not yet cavity searched the (metaphorical) harem by fining the Chinese bankers who’ve flunked their know-your-customer obligations, but by now, those bankers have surely seen the video of Senators Menendez, Rubio, and Gardner calling for their heads.

Is that all? No, that is still not all. Last week, it was a matter of intense speculation when NK News noticed that the CEO of Egyptian conglomerate Orascom Telecom, Naguib Sawaris, had landed in Pyongyang on his private jet. Sawaris had made himself scarce in Pyongyang since last year, when North Korea effectively confiscated Orascom’s profits from a cell phone network joint venture called Koryolink and caused Orascom share prices to plunge like Thanksgiving turkeys from a helicopter. It wasn’t long before we learned the reason for Sawaris’s visit — later that week, Orascom announced that Orabank, its joint banking venture with the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank, would shut down. Scratch seven banks in two weeks (but it’s still only Wednesday).

Orascom shares fell more than five percent the day it announced the failure of Orabank. It blamed sanctions, but its North Korea joint ventures were already write-offs due to Pyongyang’s own confiscatory restrictions before sanctions were strengthened in 2016. The exact cause of Orabank’s death wasn’t the 2013 designation of the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank for proliferation financing. The impending termination of Orabank’s correspondent relationships probably played a role, but I suspect that the investigative reporter George Turner inflicted the fatal wound when he exposed the links between Orabank and the FTB (more meddling kids). Even without the 311 action, knowledge of Orabank’s links to the FTB put Orascom’s corporate officers at risk of prosecution.

This week, Sawaris announced his resignation as CEO. No kidding. If I were an Orascom shareholder, I’d have wanted him defenestrated. Sawaris is one of those larger-than-life corporate caudillos who tend to be susceptible to hubris and delusions of omnipotence. He should have known better. North Korea has a long and near-perfect record of bankrupting its investors and ruining their reputations. As they say, fools and their money are soon parted. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Adam Johnson, probably put it best when he said, “[E]veryone who deals with them eventually gets burned.”

North Korea may soon enter uncharted territory. Within a few months, it may be the only industrialized state in modern history to have no banking industry to speak of. That will have the immediate benefit of forcing it to rely on third-country banks, which will have more dollar exposure and more incentive to avoid handling transactions for illicit cargo and designated entities. As of today, however, a few North Korean banks still live on. In 2014, the U.N. Panel of Experts published a table with a partial list of them. I copied that table and shaded the columns gray for banks that are designated by Treasury, and a trendy shade of tan for banks that appear to be defunct.

For comparison, here is a list of North Korean banks that have been designated by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (it looks longer than it really is because many of these names are aliases and alternative spellings).

Not all of the banks designated by Treasury are on the U.N. list. If some of them are really the same banks using different names, there should be more gray on the first chart. Still, some of the 13 undesignated survivors are significant, including the DPRK Central Bank and the Korea Commerce Bank. Hana Banking Corporation may become especially important to Kim Jong-un’s sanctions survival strategy, as it deals in Renminbi. I’d expect to see a ruble bank arise in the near future, too, but as the Justice Department recently revealed, the North Koreans have already tried that strategy and found its limits. Other banks on the list appear to be small, fly-by-night operations. They may have less global exposure and be more likely to survive a loss of their interbank access; after all, even Banco Delta Asia still survives (in much-diminished form) by dealing in Renminbi and Macanese patacas. Will a few small, non-dollar banks and couriers carrying briefcases full of cash be sufficient to sustain the government of a nation of 23 million people? Not for long, but that will depend on how aggressive we are, and how much time they have.

You will soon read much haughty analysis from aspiring Nobel Peace Prize laureates that sanctions against North Korea will not be airtight. That is true. No sanctions regime has ever been airtight, and no sanctions regime ever needed to be. The effectiveness of sanctions isn’t measured in absolute terms; it’s measured in relative terms. Sanctions work when they force despots to make difficult choices, catalyze corruption and indiscipline, instigate inter-factional knife fights over dwindling resources, and convince the tyrants that they’re losing control. How many brigades can they afford to feed? Will they have to cut back on pay and rations, and will that mean more border guards frag their officers, or carry their guns over the border and rob Chinese villagers? How many diplomats and slush fund managers will defect when they realize they can’t make their kick-up payments, and how many more bank accounts will they finger when they do? Can Bureau 39 buy enough big-screen TVs for the boys in both the SSD and the MPS, and how will the ones who get stuck with crappy Samjiyon tablets feel about that? Will keeping all the goon squads happy only come at the cost of fixing flood-damaged bridges and railways? Will the consequence of not fixing them be that the affected regions drift out of Pyongyang’s orbit? How long will Xi Jinping have their back if secondary sanctions start to cause pain in China’s precarious banking sector, or in its rust belt? Will Xi’s paternal benevolence end if Kim starts a regional arms race, or causes a breakdown in relations with the United States? 

Those are the difficult choices that sanctions can drive, and in the not-too-distant future, those choices will become matters of regime survival. I hasten to add that sanctions aren’t the only strategy that can threaten the regime’s stability. We don’t just have to pick one; in fact, they can complement each other well. Pyongyang’s goal will be to relieve itself of those difficult choices without making the two most difficult decisions of all: first, the decision to disarm completely, verifiably, and irreversibly; and second, the decision to accept enough transparency that anyone possessed of common sense would believe that it really made the first decision. Our discipline must be to multiply and intensify those difficulties until Kim Jong-un — or more likely, someone more reasonable who deposes him — makes those two most difficult decisions.

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Why Seoul’s blacklisting of Air Koryo & Dandong Hongxiang matters

South Korea is the first of the Free Three (the U.S., South Korea, and Japan) to announce independent multilateral sanctions on North Korea following the approval of UNSCR 2321. Some of the measures, such as the blacklisting of Choe Ryong-hae and Hwang Pyong-so, will probably mean almost nothing until some future left-wing president tries to give one of them a ticker-tape parade along the Chongro.

An extension of South Korea’s ban on ships that have entered North Korean ports within the last 180 days will do more, by forcing shipping companies to choose between the modest trade with North Korea and the much more significant trade with Japan and South Korea. With North Korea’s own ships already under rising pressure even pre-2321, and now facing a loss of access to insurance, North Korea may soon find itself increasingly isolated from its export markets.

South Korea’s blacklisting of Air Koryo, while not directly significant by itself (Air Koryo doesn’t fly to South Korea) may foreshadow a corresponding action by the U.S. Treasury Department, which would freeze North Korea’s national airline out of the dollar system and seriously crimp its operations. (Update: That turns out to have been a pretty good guess. OFAC just released a new round of designations that includes North Korean banks, slave labor merchants, the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and Air Koryo. I’ll have more to say after work.) It could also clear the way for South Korean diplomats to lobby middle powers like Malaysia, Thailand, Kuwait, and Singapore to deny Air Koryo landing rights. That would be a severe blow to Pyongyang. South Korea’s diplomatic campaign against North Korea’s foreign clients has been highly effective this year.

The most important and courageous move, however, was this one:

In particular, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development and four of its executives were included on the list, marking the first time that a Chinese firm is facing South Korea’s unilateral sanctions.

The company is under investigation on suspicions that it exported aluminum oxide — a nuclear bomb ingredient — to the North at least twice in recent years. In September, the U.S. blacklisted it along with its owner and other company officials.

With the latest action by Seoul, a total of 79 individuals and 69 entities will be subject to sanctions in connection with the North’s nuclear programs. The government announced a blacklist in March as a follow-up move to the UNSC’s Resolution 2270 adopted in the wake of the North’s fourth nuclear test in January.

Any financial transactions with them will be prohibited, while their assets in South Korea will be frozen. The blacklisted people will also be banned from entering the country, which is seen as a symbolic action given that there are no exchanges between the two Koreas. [Yonhap]

This could be the first sign that the three allies, acting outside the U.N. and beyond the reach of a Chinese or Russian veto, are forming a coalition to combine their economic power behind secondary sanctions against Pyongyang. If Japan joins in this, it will mean that the Chinese trading companies that prop up His Corpulency’s misrule will now face not only the freezing of their dollar assets, but the loss of their trade relationships with the two most important non-Chinese markets in northeast Asia. If those Chinese trading companies think they can mitigate the risk of secondary sanctions by insulating themselves from the dollar, Seoul has just added an additional layer of risk for those that continue to trade with Pyongyang. If the Free Three have coordinated their sanctions well, Tokyo will soon add its heft to that risk. Trading companies’ shareholders, officers, and bankers may find that risk increasingly unacceptable.

Beijing knows that while Dandong Hongxiang is itself a dead letter, this sort of Progressive Diplomacy represents a dangerous precedent for its interests. I expect it to react furiously. Even a year ago, I could not have imagined Park Geun-hye antagonizing South Korea’s greatest trading partner this way. Today, with all the noise about impeachment and the North Korean crisis, the Chinese reaction could be crowded out of the headlines. But with Park having conceded that she cannot hold onto power for long, she has nothing to lose.

Not only does Park have no reason not to burn bridges, she may have her own reasons to punish China. If she’s at least as paranoid as I am, she may suspect China, or its North Korean dependent, of directly or indirectly supporting the media frenzy that led to her downfall. It seems plausible in the age of Wikileaks that foreign governments give clandestine support to media hostile to leaders who oppose their interests. She may even suspect them of having planted the tablet that first broke the scandal. Personally, I see no direct evidence of it, nor do I think it’s more than 20 percent likely, but I’ve yet to see anyone explain (or even inquire into) the remarkable coincidence by which a discarded device just falls into the lap of a hostile press and topples a head of state. It seems easier to pull off than, say, throwing Wisconsin to Trump.

Either way, Park Geun-hye isn’t going quietly, and she’s gambling that the actions she takes on her way out the door will have the support of a future President Trump. No matter how much the Hankyoreh rages, that will make those actions even harder for her successor to undo than for her to do. What we may be seeing here is the first brick in a multinational sanctions coalition in which the members concentrate their collective power against Pyongyang’s enablers. For now, the Free Three are the core of that coalition, but with skillful diplomacy and time, that coalition may soon include other middle powers, other issuers of convertible currencies, and key members of an increasingly fractious European Union.

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Treasury finalizes cutoff of N. Korean banks from U.S. financial system

After a long delay, the Treasury Department has issued its final rule prohibiting financial institutions operating in U.S. jurisdiction from providing direct or indirect correspondent account services to North Korean financial institutions. In English, that means North Korean banks are now denied a critical link for accessing the global financial system.

North Korea is now one of only three countries to be declared a Primary Money Laundering Concern by the Treasury Department, and is the only country subject to Special Measure 5. Under section 311 of the Patriot Act, the imposition of Special Measure 5 requires formal rulemaking — notice, comment, and publication of a final rule in the Federal Register — which explains some of the delay since late May, but not all of it.

You can read Treasury’s press release here, the Federal Register notice here, and also, press reports from Yonhap and The Wall Street Journal.

The skeptics will have several responses to this. The first, that North Korea is already heavily sanctioned, I’ve already debunked, and most experts who actually understand sanctions will agree with me here. The second, that North Korea stopped using the dollar system years ago, has been refuted by the Justice Department’s recent indictment and U.N. reports. Indeed, Bill Brown’s analysis tells us that North Korea has dollarized its economy to stabilize it. The most recent counter-arguments are that North Korea doesn’t directly access the financial system through its banks, and that it effectively hides its money using front companies.

The latter arguments are best addressed by pointing to the example of C4ADS’s exposure of hundreds of North Korean ships, agents, and front companies using open-source research. That, in turn, led to the indictment of, and forfeiture action against, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, which used its own bank accounts to provide indirect correspondent account services to a sanctioned North Korean bank, Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation. The new 311 rule expands the prohibition on providing such services to cover all North Korean banks, not just those designated by the Treasury Department.

The DHID case is illustrative of one of the main strategies North Korea has used to adapt to the BDA action. It uses front companies like DHID, Chinpo Shipping, and 88 Queensway, and others that operate as unlicensed money transmitting businesses, which is itself a criminal offense. Those businesses then use their own accounts in Chinese banks to provide North Korea with indirect correspondent account services. In other words, the DHID indictments reaffirmed that North Korea continues to rely on the dollar system, and we have legal tools that are perfectly suited to shutting down that use — or would be, if the Obama administration had the political will to use them.

One discouraging sign is that Treasury did not also impose Special Measure 2, as Bill Newcomb and I recommended, apparently claiming a lack of jurisdiction.

As described above and in the NOF, FinCEN shares the concerns raised by the comment regarding North Korea’s extensive use of deceptive financial practices, including the use of shell and front companies to obfuscate the true originator, beneficiary, and purpose behind its transactions. However, FinCEN’s authority, as granted by Congress in 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(2), applies only to information concerning the beneficial ownership of “account[s] opened or maintained in the United States” and thus would not extend to information relating to the beneficial ownership of property writ large, or to property outside the United States as the comment suggested. [Final Rule]

This is a blue answer to a green question. What we were suggesting, of course, was exactly what paragraph (b)(2) of Section 311 authorizes — that Treasury may “require any domestic financial institution or domestic financial agency to take such steps as the Secretary may determine to be reasonable and practicable to obtain and retain information concerning the beneficial ownership of any account opened or maintained in the United States by a foreign person.” To the extent that North Korea’s front companies transact in dollars and use banks that operate in U.S. jurisdiction, FINCEN has the jurisdiction to impose this measure. Either Treasury is conceding that it has no jurisdiction to enforce this entire provision, or it simply isn’t willing to use it. And when North Korea’s sanctions evasion strategy is all about hiding its money behind shell companies and front companies, exposing these interests will be key to making sanctions work.

The new 311 action thus has one potential advantage and one potential disadvantage over Treasury’s 2005 action against Banco Delta Asia, the effectiveness of which is beyond serious dispute. Unlike the BDA action, Treasury’s new 311 action covers all North Korean banks, not just one small Chinese bank that enabled them. But the advantage that BDA had over Treasury’s final rule is that it signaled a willingness to reach third-party enablers, including Chinese banks, that the Obama administration hasn’t shown. The BDA action was followed by a campaign of global financial diplomacy that sent a clear message to North Korea’s bankers everywhere. Today, in contrast, the designation of North Korea would never have happened had Congress not forced the administration to act through legislation, and Congress seems unanimous in its frustration that the administration isn’t willing to enforce the law.

In theory, the new 311 action could be the single most powerful sanction yet imposed on North Korea. In practice, however, it will amount to nothing if the administration continues to refrain from enforcing the new sanction, by simply looking the other way at Chinese banks’ laissez-faire compliance with Know-Your-Customer rules, and even flagrant cases of money laundering.

All of which promises to set up major tensions between the U.S. and China during the next administration, but I’ll let you read Josh Rogin’s take on that, along with this, this, this, this, and this, all suggesting that if Clinton wins, she’ll intensify sanctions against His Porcine Majesty and his Chinese bankers. Speculate on your own as to whether this is just talk. Also, speculate on your own as to which of Trump’s advisors really speaks for a potential President Trump.

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The Senate does North Korea oversight right; also, sell your Bank of China stock now

It took a few weeks for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee to put a hearing together after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, but when that hearing finally happened on Wednesday, I actually found myself feeling sorry for the State Department witnesses, Danny Russel, the Assistant Secretary Of State at the Bureau Of East Asian And Pacific Affairs, and Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy. A few years ago, they might have gotten away with showing up unprepared, with index cards filled with stock phrases. For example, after Chris Hill’s confirmation hearing, I wrote, “The degree to which the ‘august’ senators on the Committee have paid no attention to the conduct of policies they are charged with overseeing is depressing and stupefying, and yet it all somehow still makes for dreadfully dull viewing.” Thankfully, this Senate — or rather, this part of it — is a very different and much better body.

Under the leadership of Cory Gardner, at least one part of the Senate is doing policy oversight right. You can watch the whole thing here, and although it’s two hours long, it will hold the interest of anyone interested enough in North Korea policy to read this site. Do what I did and watch it in increments as time permits. 

The main headline from the hearing is that the State Department officials said that they are investigating more Chinese companies for sanctions violations, but it’s clear from the questions that the senators will not be placated by the sacrifice of mere goats anymore. Their mood is of equal parts alarm and fury — both in front of and behind the scenes, and among both Republicans and Democrats — that Chinese banks are breaking our laws, and that this administration is letting them get away with it. As they did before the hearing, they want the administration to sanction the Chinese banks that launder Kim Jong-un’s money.

By now, everyone should have expected Republicans like Gardner and Rubio to question State about that. State should have known by now that both men would be well-prepared and unsparing in their criticism. The intellects of both men, and good behind-the-scenes work by the staff — including arms control experts and one with extensive sanctions administration experience at the Treasury Department — ensured that they would quickly sift away talking points and cut directly to the issues. Gardner mentioned at one point that the senators were given a common set of briefing materials. It showed in both the insightfulness and focus of the questions, and in the bipartisan unity of their questions’ thrust. I’ve never worked in the Senate, so I wouldn’t know if that’s standard procedure there, but past hearings I’ve watched didn’t run this well. Gardner himself was in complete command of both the material and the room, and gave every appearance of being a man with limitless potential. Indeed, all of the senators were well-prepared. All, regardless of their party or tribal affiliations, asked good or excellent questions. 

In the end, however, no one can hurt you more than the people who love you. At 58:17, Senator Menendez began questioning Fried by arguing for secondary sanctions against Chinese banks. He then embarked on a well-prepared, determined, and lawyerly cross-examination of Fried about this. Pressured by Menendez’s questioning and clearly unsure of his material, Fried told Menendez that Dandong Hongxiang was a bank (not true). I don’t think Fried was lying, but he didn’t have command of the facts, and when he got out of his depth, he swam into a rip current. Menendez pinned Fried down on his answer. Then, when his time expired, he went back and pulled Treasury’s announcement, probably talked to his staff, and confirmed that this wasn’t true. At 1:35:30, Menendez returned, rearmed. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s like to have a bad day in the United States Senate.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Mr. Fried, I pride myself on my preparation for these hearings, so I went back to your office after your answer, and I looked at OFAC’s statement of Monday. You said in response to my question we’d sanctioned a bank on Monday. Well, I read from OFAC’s statement that they imposed sanctions on Dan-ong Yonhwang (sic) Industrial Development Company and four individuals. Now, is that company a bank? 

A/S FRIED: Sir, it is a financial — it is not a bank — it is the financial company that worked with a sanctioned North Korean bank.

SEN. MENENDEZ: All right, that’s different than saying you’d sanctioned a bank.

A/S FRIED: Yes, sir.

SEN. MENENDEZ: You did not sanction a bank on Monday.

A/S FRIED: Uh, we sanctioned a fi — a Chinese, uh, financial corporation.

SEN. MENENDEZ: All right, well, that’s different than a bank. Let me ask you this. How many banks — banks — has the administration sanctioned as it relates to North Korea?

A/S FRIED: Uh, a nu — do you mean banks in general or Chinese banks?

SEN. MENENDEZ: Chinese — let’s talk about Chinese banks.

A/S FRIED: A number — no Chinese banks.

SEN. MENENDEZ: No Chinese banks.

A/S FRIED: Not in China. We have umm —

SEN. MENENDEZ: That’s my point. That’s the point I was trying to drive at earlier. You have sanctioned no Chinese banks at the end of the day, and they are probably the major financial institutions for North Korea. What this company, as I understand, did was make purchases of sugar and fertilizer on behalf of a designated Korean bank. It’s a trading company, not a financial company. So, when I take testimony as a member of this Committee, I need to make sure that testimony is accurate, because I make decisions based upon it. And I must say that the information you gave me is not accurate. It was not a bank. This was a trading company. And finally, I got the answer that I wanted to hear, which is what I knew, that you’ve sanctioned no Chinese banks that relates (sic) to North Korea. And it is our hesitancy to do so that that takes away one of the major instruments possible to change Chinese thinking. I’m all for persuasion if you can achieve it. But when you can’t, and North Korea continues to advance its nuclear program in a way that becomes more menacing — and its miniaturization and its missile technology — I don’t know at what point we are going to continue to think we can stop them when in fact they’re pretty well on their way. And we allow them to continue to do so. And we don’t use some of the most significant tools that we have. So I’m disappointed that you didn’t give me the right information.

I hold no ill will toward Mr. Fried, but I literally cheered as Menendez calmly bored right to the truth of the matter. Yet on another level, watching this was deeply depressing. Menendez, for all his troubles — and I hope he’ll soon put those behind him — clearly showed us how valuable he is to his state and his country. If the Democrats retake the Senate, I hope he’ll be Committee Chairman again. Markey — watch for him to emerge as a liberal advocate for human rights in North Korea — wisely counseled restraint on South Korea’s military threats. Rubio, who had personally read and commented intelligently on an earlier version of the NKSPEA, had also read and understood C4ADS’s report and its implications. Any one of these senators would have been a better choice as President than the choices before us now. What I can’t help asking myself today is how we elect such good senators, yet such awful presidents.

In the years after the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, those who had worked hard to pass that law watched the State Department slow-walk it to a full stop, with Congress seemingly powerless to make it follow the law. That may have been to State’s short-term advantage, but its long-term cost was to plant in many of us a deep distrust of the State Department. We learned that passing a law is only the first step — that laws need robust enforcement mechanisms and a permanent, bipartisan constituency to make sure the executive enforces them. Hence, section 103 briefings, the first installment of which came due just as Kim Jong-un tested his fifth nuke. This Subcommittee is taking full advantage of those oversight provisions. Pray that continues to be the case in the next congress. 

I’ll give The Wall Street Journal the final word, if only to make the point that this issue isn’t going away, and that the next POTUS will come under withering pressure to do what this one has not done — enforce our laws. 

An invaluable report published last week by South Korea’s Asan Institute and the U.S.-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies found that Hongxiang Industrial and its parent company conducted some $532 million in North Korea business from 2011 to 2015. To put that into perspective, South Korean officials have estimated that the North’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon cost less than $700 million to construct. [….]

In addition to neutralizing Hongxiang, these sanctions are aimed at persuading other Chinese companies to cut off Pyongyang lest they suffer the same fate, as when the U.S. sanctioned Macau-based Banco Delta Asia for about a year starting in 2005. This is the best hope for squeezing Kim hard enough that he might halt his nuclear drive. But China opposes such measures because it fears that squeezing too hard might cause the collapse of its client state.

Chinese trading firms and especially banks are likelier to cut off Pyongyang if the U.S. follows up promptly with further sanctions. One good sign is that the State Department’s Daniel Fried suggested Wednesday to Congress that more penalties are coming for Chinese firms.

Less promising is that in unsealing its indictment Monday the Justice Department said “there are no allegations of wrongdoing” against the banks involved in Hongxiang’s sanctions-busting. So despite imposing billions of dollars in penalties on a range of European banks for violating sanctions on Iran and others in recent years, the Obama Administration is signaling that Chinese banks aiding North Korea are untouchable.

In an open letter this month to President Obama, 19 Senators led by Colorado’s Cory Gardner quoted our Aug. 19 editorial (“North Korea’s Sanctions Luck”) on the evidence, compiled by United Nations experts, that the Bank of China “allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.” That’s one of many examples. [WSJ]

If the House and Senate staff believe the administration has held back on specific targets, such as the Bank of China or any of the 12 banks named in the DHID forfeiture complaint, their next step should be to send the President a section 102(a) letter, which triggers a mandatory investigation, and possible designation.

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The Chinese banks in the N. Korea money laundering scandal skated. They shouldn’t have.

Yesterday’s indictments of the Dandong Hongxiang defendants, who are charged with willfully violating North Korea sanctions by laundering money for sanctioned Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, might have been good enough for 2009. They broke the illusion that China’s well-connected bag-men and bag-women were immune from sanctions. To borrow John Park and Jim Walsh’s expression, they meant that we’d finally begun to go after North Korea, Inc.

Unfortunately, this isn’t 2009. We’re now in a desperate race to disarm Kim Jong-un, one way or another, before the coming Korea Missile Crisis, before he can extort us into retreat and South Korea into one-country-two-systems submission. Those who think we can coexist with a nuclear North Korea are blinding themselves to what is flagrantly, repeatedly, and recently obvious — that he will not and cannot coexist with us. In Washington, serious men now speak of preemptive strikes. The appeasers will call for more deals, but we have tried them all. If there is still a chance to avoid war, that chance is regime-crippling sanctions that force the generals in Pyongyang to “stare into the abyss.” For those sanctions to cripple the regime, they will have to cause a liquidity crisis in Pyongyang by freezing solid the slush funds that pay Kim Jong-un’s army, secret police, elites, and civil service.

Just as they were in 2005, banks are the key pressure points. It’s the banks, not shadowy Chinese trading companies, that are most easily influenced to run away from the legal risks associated with North Korea, and that hold the bulk of Kim Jong-un’s assets.

Yet increasingly, the smartest experts on North Korea’s economy are speculating that China and its banks are being even more unhelpful than most North Korea watchers had imagined. Both Steph Haggard and Nick Eberstadt have raised suspicions that someone — most likely, someone in China — is subsidizing Pyongyang and actively undermining financial sanctions, as shown by the surprising resilience of its currency, even after the closure of Kaesong, and in spite of the fact that North Korea is nominally running a substantial trade deficit. The subsequent exposure of DHID’s role does much to validate suspicions that that support is coming through Chinese financial institutions, in dollars.

But this hidden source of resiliency is also a vulnerability. To Bill Brown, dollarization of the palace economy has helped Pyongyang stabilize that economy in the short term, but also contains longer-term dangers (I’ll let you read about them at his post rather than try to explain them here). The key point is that Pyongyang may be more dependent on the dollar than at any point in its history. Can Pyongyang adapt by further limiting its exposure to the dollar system? If that was a real option for Pyongyang, it would have exercised it either after the Banco Delta Asia episode or since then. As the Justice Department said, Pyongyang needs dollars because sellers take them.

Which is to say, China’s banks are helping Kim Jong-un win his race to nuclear breakout, and by doing so, they’re making a nuclear war on China’s doorstep more likely.

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Now that I have your attention, I must bore you with some banking law. If you just can’t stand it, skip ahead to the next section. I’m about to set the table for why the 12 Chinese banks named in yesterday’s civil forfeiture complaint — and the Bank of China, which was implicated in a criminal case in Singapore last year — skated, and shouldn’t have.

Under U.S. anti-money laundering (AML) law, banks are expected to know the law, the sanctions regulations, and enough about their customers to know who’s legit and who’s using them to launder money or break sanctions. They’re supposed to have compliance programs in place, including trained compliance officers to identify and report suspicious activity, and special software to identify blocked persons who appear on Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Nationals (“the SDN List”). A key part of this compliance program is called “Know Your Customer,” which is self-explanatory in principle but can be complicated in its application

If you’re interested — and let’s face it, you probably aren’t — the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, has published enforcement guidelines in 31 CFR Part 501, Appendix A, laying out a schedule of fines based on the number and amount of transactions that broke the sanctions regulations, and the willfulness and egregiousness of the violations. What’s slightly more interesting is that OFAC publishes its settlements against banks that violate sanctions laws. A comparison to how similarly situated European banks have been treated puts the Chinese banks (and Treasury) in a very unfavorable light.

OFAC has often imposed steep fines against banks that didn’t even violate the sanctions regulations intentionally. For example, in March 2015, Paypal settled a penalty case with OFAC for $7.6M after violating multiple sanctions regulations through “reckless disregard” in its sanctions compliance before self-reporting its violations. In August 2015, UBS AG paid OFAC a $1.7M settlement for 222 payments to persons blocked for terrorist connections. UBS AG self-reported, but only after learning that OFAC was investigating the payments. UBS had a sufficient compliance program in place; it just interpreted the law incorrectly, concluding that certain investment-related transactions on behalf of a designated client weren’t blocked (wrong). In February, Barclays Bank paid OFAC a $2.5M settlement for processing 159 transactions, totaling just over $3M, for a person blocked under the Zimbabwe Sanctions Regulations, masked behind entities that did not appear on the SDN list. The violation was the inadvertent result of faulty compliance verification software. The bank did not self-disclose. Either way, OFAC expects banks to have effective compliance programs. As excuses, bad software and bad lawyers won’t cut it. Self-disclosure mitigates the penalty, but it’s not a defense.

Willful violations, on the other hand, can be extremely costly. In March 2015, Commerzbank paid OFAC a $258M settlement for processing 1600 transactions in violation of the Iran, Sudan, Burma, Cuba sanctions regulations. The bank stripped transaction data out of the wire transfers to conceal their nexus to sanctioned persons from their correspondents. In October 2015, Crédit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank paid OFAC a $330M settlement for processing over 4,000 transactions in violation of Sudan, Burma, Cuba, and Iran sanctions regulations. Once again, OFAC found that Crédit Agricole and its predecessor banks stripped data out of the wire transfers.

The mother of all fines, however, was a record $8.9 billion (with a “b”) paid by BNP Paribas for years of willful data-stripping in violation of multiple sanctions regulations. OFAC’s penalty was so gargantuan that Congress passed special legislation (see Division O, Title IV, Section 404) to place $1 billion of that amount into a special fund to compensate the victims of terrorism, including the 9/11 attacks and some of the lawsuits against North Korea. A special master was recently appointed to administer the fund. (Thanks to the reader and lawyer who told me about this recently. I wish him a great bounty of contingency fees. Also, I’m in the wrong business. I do this for free, you know. You’re welcome, humanity.)

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In the case of the 12 Chinese banks named in yesterday’s forfeiture complaint, their AML compliance procedures were, at best, inexcusably sloppy. They serviced international transactions for shell companies that were registered in the British Virgin Islands or the Seychelles, and that listed fictitious addresses in Hong Kong office towers. Yeah, but who among us hasn’t done that as a youthful indiscretion? For those of you in the banking industry, the obvious answer is any banks whose Know-Your-Customer compliance programs do their due diligence and have kept up with strict new beneficial ownership rules in the EU and the U.S., especially since that whole Panama Papers thing, and especially for jurisdictions subject to U.N. sanctions and section 311.

And it’s not like much due diligence should have been necessary, given that Ma boasted openly that her customers were from “the DPRK elite group” and was an outspoken proponent of the trade that propped Pyongyang up.

To add further to the banks’ culpability here, some of the shell companies used the same Tortola, B.V.I. address as DCB Finance Limited, which was exposed for its role in sanctions violations when the Panama Papers went public (surely compliance software should have caught this!). According to the forfeiture complaint, “[a]s recently as June, July and August of 2016, nearly $8 million has transited through U.S. correspondent bank accounts related to three DHID front companies,” so some of this conduct is very recent. If nothing else, it adds more fuel to what Bill Newcomb and I have said about invoking additional beneficial ownership disclosure and record-keeping rules for North Korea.

In the case of the Bank of China, however, it got away with the AML equivalent of murder. Like Commerzbank and BNP Paribas, its employees stripped data out of wire transfers and willfully deceived their U.S. correspondents. There’s simply no defending Treasury’s failure to take enforcement action, given that BoC’s conduct was willful and egregious, unlike the other banks that simply got sloppy.

For OFAC’s penalties to be consistent, all 13 of these banks’ compliance officers ought to be collecting documents and reviewing affidavits with their lawyers right now. Instead, by saying that “[t]here are no allegations of wrongdoing by the U.S. correspondent banks or foreign banks that maintain these accounts,” the Justice Department sent a very different message to the Chinese banking industry.

alfred-e-neuman

That’s why tomorrow’s hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should not let up on what Senator Gardner and Senator Corker have demanded. They should not accept China’s reported arrest and investigation of Ma Xiaohong, its reported (and belated) investigation of KKBC executives, or its actions to stop North Korean trade representatives from leaving the country as signs that China is serious about enforcement at last. The DHID ships that have been impounded will be released in due course. A reported bribery investigation into the Dandong customs office that passed Ma’s wares into North Korea is self-serving from China’s perspective; China would rather package this as an anti-corruption investigation than admit that it bowed to U.S. pressure. China is not sharing information with DOJ and Treasury about its investigation, and U.S. officials don’t believe China’s actions are coordinated with theirs. More recently, China has lashed out at the U.S. for enforcing its laws: 

China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday voiced its disapproval of U.S. actions against the businesswoman, Ma Xiaohong, and her Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. a day after Washington announced criminal charges and sanctions against her and the trading company for allegedly acting as financial fronts for North Korean companies on U.S. blacklists. “We oppose efforts by any country to use their domestic laws to impose ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ over Chinese entities or individuals,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing, in response to a query on the U.S. actions against Hongxiang Industrial. [WSJ]

That’s some chutzpah, coming from a government that just unilaterally claimed the whole South China Sea and lost an international arbitration testing the merits of its claims, or that bullies Seoul with unilateral sanctions when the latter tries to defend itself from Beijing’s rabid dog. The real unilateralism is yielding to global consensus, voting for U.N. resolutions, and failing to enforce them. Unilateralism is claiming a sovereign right to misuse a distant nation’s financial system to break its laws and threaten its security. Maybe next time, U.S. authorities shouldn’t fly to Beijing to share their investigative findings, and all the sources and methods that approach may have compromised. Maybe they should just file indictments, freeze assets, and let Xi Jinping read about them in The Global Times. U.S.-China relations may have to get worse before they can get better. They may have to get worse to prevent them from becoming catastrophic. Predators need limits.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and given the long and sordid history of China violating North Korea sanctions, any claim that China has made a principled decision to enforce in good faith the sanctions it voted for at the U.N. should be counted as extraordinary.

Instead, we should take China’s actions as signs that Beijing will do as little as it can get away with doing, but will acquiesce to its enforcement obligations if we attach a high enough cost to its tolerance of North Korea’s violations. We should seek to divide the self-interest of the banks in avoiding penalties and maintaining their dollar access from the interests of the Chinese government, which is to make mischief, drive the Americans out of Asia, and end up dominating both Koreas by default. We should take note of reports that North Korean trading company executives fear repercussions for getting caught. The administration should exploit those fears and divisions, turn as many of those executives as it can, and find out what they know. Above all, it should heed the conclusion of C4ADS, the plucky little NGO that showed it how good investigation works:

With the right resources and political will, it can be possible to significantly disrupt the DPRK’s illicit overseas earnings, and in the process raise the cost of its brazen proliferation activity. As the DPRK grows increasingly dependent on its overseas networks, it creates an opportunity for the international community to leverage their financial intelligence tools to squeeze the regime’s illicit activity. While actors inside North Korea can operate with impunity, abroad they are subject to international norms. A single shipment can require significant documentation and effort, including maintaining corporate entities, processing cross-border payments, or acquiring insurance or bank letters of credit, all of which necessarily leave paper trails that can be followed. By exposing these risk points and peeling away the infrastructure of DPRK illicit overseas networks, the cost and difficulty of operating abroad could rise dramatically.

Following the money is likely to be the most effective means for the international community to coerce the Kim regime toward concessions and a cessation of their nuclear program. Getting there, however, will require significantly expanded efforts to continually investigate, monitor, and act against DPRK entities as they further evolve to evade sanctions. This report aims to build a foundation for this effort. [C4ADS]

A surprising finding? North Korea’s network isn’t really all that big.

A key finding from the UN Panel of Experts was the observation that “While [DPRK] networks appear complex, their key nodes consist of a limited number of individuals and intermediaries…. Although shell companies can be swiftly changed, the individuals responsible for establishing and managing them have remained, often for years.” [C4ADS]

I’ll give Stephan Haggard the penultimate word.

What these reports show clearly is that the “sanctions don’t work” litany is deeply misleading. This trope assumes a hardy North Korean regime ready to resist any pressure no matter how intense. That is simply not the story; rather, the story is that North Korea has not been forced to make any adjustments because it has been able to conduct business largely if not wholly as usual. How does that show that sanctions don’t work? [WTT]

Yes, some Chinese trading companies may indeed run away from North Korea because of the DHID indictments. Those that don’t will probably jack up their commissions from 20 percent to 30 percent, which is itself a sanctions cost for Kim Jong-un. But any casual reader of U.N. Panel of Experts knows that North Korea’s network of enablers in China, though it is finite, is also much more extensive than this. If this indictment is just a beginning, it’s a good one. I have no objection to starting with smaller targets to scare bigger ones. But if this is all we do, North Korea’s network will recover quickly. One way or another, if we mean to prevent war, we must send a clear message to the Chinese banking industry that there will be no more business as usual with Kim Jong-un.

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(Edited after publication to include China’s reaction to the indictments.)

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Congress to Obama: Enforce N. Korea sanctions against Chinese banks

Three weeks before North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, I wrote, “The Obama administration isn’t following Kim Jong-un’s money. Congress should ask why.” Unfortunately, subsequent events soon affirmed that criticism; fortunately, Congress is asking, and it’s asking the right questions. The failure of the administration’s North Korea policy has even become an election-year liability for Hillary Clinton, forcing her to distance herself from the President and his policy (or more accurately, the lack of one).

The Obama administration’s single greatest North Korea policy failure in eight years has been its failure to apply the kind of secondary sanctions that proved so effective against North Korea a decade ago. Some of that blame lies with the bad advice the President has received from certain think tanks, which has made its way into the State Department and the National Security Staff. After every North Korean nuke test, attack, or other outrage, a nothing-we-can-do chorus of China-friendly scholars and State Department retirees steps up to misinform gullible, ill-informed reporters that we have no options but appeasement, because the Chinese government will never push North Korea to the brink of collapse.

Yet for years, a Panel of Experts appointed by the U.N. Security Council has published extensive evidence implicating Chinese banks, businesses, nationals, and state-owned companies for a pattern and practice of violations that can only be willful, as I’ve argued here and here (see the U.N. POE’s reports from 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). We have a North Korea problem because China, which has recently emerged as an accomplished bully when it comes to our allies, denies that it has the means to influence Kim Jong-un. 

And in fact, we have pushed North Korea to the brink of collapse before, without the cooperation of the Chinese government, by threatening the Chinese banks that hold North Korea’s slush funds with fines, penalties, and even the denial of access to the dollar-based financial system. U.N. Panel of Experts reports prove that most of those funds are denominated in dollars and wired through the U.S. financial industry. No bank can afford to defy such a threat, and Kim Jong-un couldn’t last long without that cash. 

This year, Congress finally lost its patience with the Obama administration’s passivity and drift and passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which mandates sanctions against third-country (read: Chinese) enablers of North Korea’s proliferation, arms trafficking, and money laundering. The bipartisanship of the vote (418-2 in the House, 96-0 in the Senate) was a minor political miracle in a polarized Congress in an election year, regarding an issue that had itself polarized Washington in previous years. Congress’s clear mandate to the administration was that it must break the link between Kim Jong-un’s regime and the hard currency that sustains his regime and legitimizes his rule.

Even before North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, Congress had begun to express its frustration at the Obama administration for failing to enforce the new law. It’s not that we don’t know who Kim Jong-un’s bankers are, either. In 2013, the Chosun Ilbo reported that the Treasury Department had identified hundreds of millions of dollars in North Koreans slush funds in banks in Shanghai. In January, Bonnie Glaser testified as follows before the House Foreign Affairs Asia Subcommittee:

In 2013, US and South Korean authorities uncovered dozens of overseas bank accounts worth hundreds of millions of dollars that were linked to top North Korean leaders, which they proposed including in UN sanctions lists, but Beijing refused. China has also strongly opposed levying sanctions on high-level North Korean officials such as the head of the North Korea’s agency responsible for conducting its nuclear tests. [link]

That same month, the New York Times reported, “The Treasury Department has identified similar institutions used by Mr. Kim’s son, the current leader, Kim Jong-un.” In February, the U.N. Panel of Experts implicated dozens of North Korean and third-country entities in China, Africa, the Middle East, and elsewhere in Asia. The Center for Advanced Defense Studies will soon publish a report implicating a large Chinese conglomerate in violating U.N. sanctions against North Korea; that report will also cast suspicion on the Bank of Dandong for handling some of its transactions. 

There’s plenty more where that came from in The Panama Papers. No doubt, there’s plenty more stored away in the laptops, cell phones, and human intelligence being collected from the North Korean diplomats and slush fund managers who’ve defected in Southeast Asia, Russia, China, and Europe recently. Which is to say, it’s not for lack of intelligence or lack of means that the Obama administration refuses to shut down Kim Jong-un’s access to the financial system. It’s solely due to a lack of political will.

In the wake of the test, China’s latest failures to enforce U.N. sanctions — and the Obama administration’s failure to enforce the law against Chinese banks and companies — has drawn a sharp reaction from Congress.

The House Asia Subcommittee has already held one hearing since the latest test, in which four separate witnesses recommended that the Obama administration apply secondary sanctions. Ed Royce, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, has been sharply critical of the administration’s failure to enforce the law.

But much of the discussion in Washington focused on the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Passed by Congress and signed by Obama earlier this year, it gives the Obama administration, among other things, new authority to sanction any individual who “imports, exports, or re-exports luxury goods to or into North Korea” or “engages in money laundering, counterfeiting of goods or currency, bulk cash smuggling, or narcotics trafficking that supports the government of North Korea or its senior officials.”

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee and led the push for more sanctions authority, said Obama’s policies are “falling short” by not imposing sanctions on Chinese companies and banks.

Royce referenced a leaked U.N. report that accused China of lax enforcement and “cites evidence that Pyongyang moved tens of millions of dollars through a Singaporean branch of China’s biggest bank to evade sanctions,” according to a report in Foreign Policy magazine.  [Politico]

Small correction to Politico — the U.N. report is publicly available.

The report found that North Korea “has been effective in evading sanctions and continues to use the international financial system, airlines and container shipping routes to trade in prohibited items.” [Politico]

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will hold a top secret briefing on the administration’s enforcement efforts today, and a letter signed by 19 Republican senators is a strong indication that the staffers will ask the right questions in that briefing. Last week, Senator Cory Gardner (R, Colo.), the Senate’s leading advocate of a tougher North Korea policy, assembled the group of senators, who signed this letter to President Obama. It’s a long quote, but worth reading.

On February 18, 2016, you signed into law the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 (P.L. 114-122), but your Administration’s implementation of this legislation has been disappointing. While we commend the designation of North Korea as a jurisdiction of “primary money laundering concern” and the designation of top North Korean officials, including Kim Jong Un, as human rights violators, these actions only scratch the surface of the sanctions authorities provided to you under the new law.

First and foremost, you must begin to designate entities that are assisting the North Korean regime, especially those based in China — the country with which North Korea currently conducts an estimated 90% of its trade and that has historically served as Pyongyang’s largest military and diplomatic protector. 

As you know, Section 102 of P.L. 114-122 mandates, not simply authorizes, investigations against all entities, no matter where they are based, “upon receipt by the President of credible information indicating that such person has engaged” in illicit conduct outlined in the legislation.

As the Wall Street Journal wrote in an editorial on August 18, 2016: “The promise of secondary sanctions is that they can force foreign banks, trading companies and ports to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business in dollars, which usually is an easy call…  But this only works if the U.S. exercises its power and blacklists offending institutions, as Congress required in February’s North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. The Obama Administration hasn’t done so even once.”

As the Wall Street Journal further noted, for instance, the Administration has not acted on information from the United Nations Panel of Experts report in March 2016 that the Bank of China “allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.”  Moreover, there is ample evidence of increased North Korean efforts to evade sanctions with help from China-based entities.  According to the New York Times report on September 9, 2016, “To evade sanctions, the North’s state-run trading companies opened offices in China, hired more capable Chinese middlemen, and paid higher fees to employ more sophisticated brokers, according to Jim Walsh and John Park, scholars at MIT and Harvard.”

We respectfully ask you to immediately provide written answers to the following questions:

1) Has the Administration received credible evidence that entities based in China are engaging in illicit activities outlined in P.L. 114-122?   If so, what is the status of these investigations?  Why have no Chinese-based entities been designated to date?

2) Do you believe that China is in full compliance of UN Security Council Resolution 2270 and all preceding U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea?  Please provide a detailed account of China’s compliance or non-compliance and what actions, if any, have been pursued at the U.N. for China’s non-compliance. 

3) Why has the Administration not designated any entities for malicious cyber-enabled activities, as required by Section 209 of P.L. 114-122?

4) Does the Administration believe that the multilateral enforcement of UNSCR 2270 and its own enforcement of P.L. 114-122 has had a credible and measurable impact on North Korea’s regime ability to obtain luxury goods? 

5) Is North Korea’s state-owned Air Koryo airline involved in any activities outlined in Section 104 of P.L. 114-122 and if so, has the Administration initiated an investigation for the designation of Air Koryo under the law?  If not, why not?

6) What actions has the Administration taken to discourage the North Korean forced labor camps and trafficking of North Korean workers?  Is the Administration pursuing any designations for entities that are assisting in “the operation and maintenance of political prison camps or forced labor camps, including outside of North Korea”, as required by Section 104(a)(8) of P.L. 114-122? If not, why not?

Mr. President, we must send a strong message to Beijing that our patience has run out and exert any and all effort with Beijing to use its critical leverage to stop Pyongyang.  As Secretary Ash Carter stated on September 9, following the latest nuclear test:  “China shares important responsibility for this development and has an important responsibility to reverse it. It’s important that it use its location, its history and its influence to further the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and not the direction things have been going.” [full text here; link added by me]

The Hill, which also covered the letter, lists the names of the signatories.

The letter was signed by Republican Sens. Cory Gardner (Colo.); John Boozman (Ark.); Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.); Tom Cotton (Ark.); Ted Cruz (Texas); Steve Daines (Mont.); Deb Fischer (Neb.); Johnny Isakson (Ga.); Jerry Moran (Kan.); David Perdue (Ga.); Jim Risch (Idaho); Jeff Sessions (Ala.); Pat Roberts (Kan.); Mike Rounds (S.D.); Marco Rubio (Fla.); Ben Sasse (Neb.); Richard Shelby (Ala.); Dan Sullivan (Ark.); and Roger Wicker (Miss.). [The Hill]

Separately, Senator Ted Cruz (R, Tex.) and Kelly Ayotte (R, N.H.) also called on the administration to hit Kim Jong-un’s Chinese enablers with secondary sanctions.   

Not to be outdone, Senate Democrats introduced a resolution condemning the test and calling for the U.N. to approve more sanctions against North Korea. Although the resolution highlights the passage of the NKSPEA in its findings, it stops short of criticizing President Obama for failing to enforce it. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, offered some veiled-but-cryptic criticism of the President’s policy:

In a further effort to distance herself from current policy, Clinton also called for a “rethinking” of America’s strategy toward North Korea during a news conference in New York. Sanctions are “not enough,” she said, proposing an “urgent effort” to pressure Beijing into cracking down on Pyongyang. [Politico]

Will the administration finally act? I suspect not. Instead, it is running out the clock. Instead, it is negotiating yet another resolution with China, which China will also fail to enforce. As long as those negotiations continue, the administration probably won’t want to provoke China with secondary sanctions. And to be sure, there are loopholes in the current resolutions that should be closed, new sanctions that should be imposed, and new designations that should be made.

But in the end, all of North Korea’s profits from exporting coal, gold, weapons, and slaves ultimately end up in banks, mostly in China. If we freeze the accounts where those earnings are deposited, and from where the proceeds are spent, it won’t matter how much earnings potential those revenue sources have in the next two years. We could nullify North Korea’s profits from any gaps in the sanctions, and effectively enforce the sanctions that already exist, by beginning an earnest effort to penalize Kim Jong-un’s accomplices in the banking industry. Which is why, when China balks at passing a tough new resolution, our diplomats should not be afraid to walk away and act in concert with their allies in Japan, South Korea, Europe, Canada, and Australia. It would be far better to enforce the sanctions we have now than to enforce nominally tougher sanctions poorly.

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China’s largest bank freezes North Korean accounts

Not even a week after President Obama signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act into law (full disclosure), a South Korean newspaper is reporting that a number of Chinese banks, including China’s largest bank (and the world’s largest, in terms of assets) have frozen the accounts of their North Korean customers.

It has been confirmed that some Chinese banks in northeastern China, including the Dandong, Liaoning Province branch of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), the country’s largest bank, have suspended cash deposit and transfer services for accounts owned by North Koreans since December last year. The effectuation of new and tougher U.S. sanctions on North Korea on Thursday will likely affect Chinese businesses and financial institutions ever more. [Donga Ilbo]

Although the Treasury Department’s direct regulatory authority is limited to dollar-denominated transactions, the breadth of the secondary sanctions language in section 104(b) of the new law is sweeping enough to have shut down transactions in other currencies, including the Renminbi.

In telephone conversations with the Dong-A Ilbo on Thursday and Friday last week, an employee of ICBC’s Dandong branch said that the measures started in late December, adding that the bank had suspended all deposits and transfers of foreign currencies, including the Chinese yuan, in and out of those accounts. Dandong is located in a border area with North Korea. More than 70 percent of North Korea-China trade takes place in the city.

The banks’ actions have already begun to cause pain for the North Korean government.

A source quoted a Chinese entrepreneur in Shenyang, Liaoning Province as saying that a Chinese bank he was doing business with recently informed him that it would not take deposits in or make cash transfers from North Korean accounts. The businessman, who invested in several mines in North Korea, had paid for minerals from the mines imported to China through the bank. His North Korean partner is urging him to send money quickly, according to the source. [….]

Chinese companies operating plants in the border area and employing North Korean workers are restless, as the U.S. and South Korea have cut off Pyongyang’s financial sources for the nuclear and missile development by the U.S. sanctions law and the shutdown of the Kaesong Industrial Complex.

“If we trade minerals with North Korea and make transactions of the United Nations-designated contraband goods, our business will be hit hard by the U.S. sanctions law,” another Chinese businessman said. “Many entrepreneurs are worried because their major importers such as the U.S., Europe and South Korea will likely block imports of Chinese products manufactured by North Korean employees.”

The claim that the banks began freezing accounts in December introduces some doubt that the new U.S. sanctions law is the cause of the banks’ actions. In December, the bill was crawling through the Congress at a snail’s pace. True, Senator Gardner had introduced his bill in the Senate in October and had pushed it hard, but it wasn’t until the January 6th nuclear test that it hit the fast track. One Chinese source, apparently speculating, suggested that the account freezes may have been related to the Moranbang Band fiasco.

“After the Chinese government started some measures to put pressure on Pyongyang, it could have further expanded and strengthened the sanctions following a series of provocations such as the nuclear test and the missile launch (February 7),” the expert said. It is possible that Beijing, which participated in some of the international sanctions on the North following the third nuclear test in February 2013, has broadened the scope its sanctions on the North.

It’s also possible that the banks really didn’t start “the measure” in December at all. There were no reports of account freezes in either December or January, and plenty of reporters — and bloggers — keep a close eye on these things. This could be disinformation by Beijing to save face. China has also taken a beating in the U.S. and South Korean press for its failure to put pressure on Kim Jong-un. Back-dating the actions to December could be China’s way of taking credit for pressure it had no real hand in exerting. It’s unlikely that these banks acted in December and that we’re only hearing these reports two months later, and it’s too coincidental that we’re only hearing them after President Obama signed the new law.

Screen Shot 2016-02-21 at 9.37.47 PM

[ICBC Branch in Dandong]

So does this mean the law is already working? Not yet, but if the law is working as intended, this is the kind of report I’d expect to see in these first weeks. It means that the bigger Chinese banks, which have more exposure to the financial system, have gotten the message. The big Chinese banks also shunned North Korean business in 2013, under pressure from Treasury, but that pressure wasn’t sustained, and so it wasn’t decisive.

To make the law work as intended, Treasury will first have to publish new regulations in Title 31 of the Code of Federal Regulations, so that banks everywhere — but especially in Europe — must apply for licenses for dollar transactions with North Korea. It must also demonstrate its seriousness about enforcement by going after smaller banks like the Bank of Dandong and Orabank, non-bank institutions like 88 Queensway, and to the extent we can identify them, North Korean money launderers in Guangdong and Macau.

One wonders how many companies like Orascom Telecom will now face plunging share values because of their exposure to North Korea. It’s further evidence that sanctions risks associated with North Korean investments are “material,” and that the Securities and Exchange Commission should require those investments to be disclosed in public filings.

Update: 

South Korea said Monday that North Korea is believed to be relying on cash delivery or borrowed-name bank accounts in a bid to avert China’s possible financial sanctions.

A local media company reported that Chinese banks in areas bordering North Korea have begun to freeze accounts held by North Koreans apparently in response to the North’s latest nuclear and missile test.

The Unification Ministry said that it is checking the validity of the report.

“But the North is thought to directly deliver cash or use borrowed-name bank accounts when it comes to its external trade (with China),” said Jeong Joon-hee, a ministry spokesman at the regular press briefing. [Yonhap]

Inevitably, there will be small leaks like this, but you can’t run a country of 23 million on gym bags filled with cash. So while the new law may already be having an impact — and in light of the closure of Kaesong, that impact may be a substantial one — I’m also worried that Treasury still hasn’t issued any implementing guidance about exempting food and medicine transactions. They need to publish that immediately.

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Breaking the Bank in Macau

[Updates: You can read Treasury’s final rule here. Start on page 14 to read just what Banco Delta failed to do to Treasury’s satisfaction. The message for North Korea’s other bankers out there is clear: ask obvious questions. Among BDA’s practices, according to the rule, was to provide a discount for a “high-risk North Korean-related bulk currency depositor” they either knew, or should have known, was laundering money. BDA obfuscated about reforms, failed to change its corrupt management, and didn’t even come clean about all of the North Korean accounts it was keeping. Based on the notice, BDA was largely in the business of laundering money and was just waiting for things to blow over:

For example, two related business accountholders, which accounted for more than 30 percent of the bank’s bulk cash turnover over a multipleyear period, provided intermediary financial services on behalf of North Korean banks at least in part to disguise the origins of the transactions. Bank documents reveal that Banco Delta Asia had knowledge of the relationships between the banks and these entities, willingly obscured the identity of the transacting institutions, and agreed to continue treating the accounts as business accounts, not banking accounts, despite activity consistent with banking.

And what was BDA’s answer to this? That it had absolute faith in the Central Bank of North Korea to prevent (gasp!) money laundering. What’s less clear is whether this will really mean the end of BDA after all; they don’t currently have correspondent accounts in U.S. banks, although they may have indirect access to the U.S. financial system. Now, it’s all up to the Macanese regulators.

Rep. Ed Royce’s office e-mailed to express his general satisfaction with the action, which surprises me to a degree.

    Treasury’s action today should put meaning behind the words of U.S. diplomats who have said that they take North Korea’s illicit activity, including the counterfeiting of U.S. currency, seriously. We must continue to aggressively track North Korea’s global and robust illicit activity — taking action against other complicit financial institutions as necessary. The danger is that post the February 13th nuclear agreement, and post Banco Delta Asia, North Korea’s illicit activities are downplayed.

    Confronting North Korea on its illicit activities bolsters our diplomatic efforts, and makes denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula more likely, not less. Ending its counterfeiting and other criminal activity would sever a key subsidy for North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction program and force North Korea into international norms. ]

Original Post: After seeing so much dreadfulness coming from our own government on North Korea lately, I have to say that the Treasury Department’s resolution of the Banco Delta issue is definitely not as dreadful as you might think on reading this:

The move would clear the way for Macau authorities to decide whether to release some of the frozen accounts — an estimated $8 million to $12 million — Pyongyang has demanded as a condition of negotiations on its nuclear program, other U.S. officials said. [Reuters]

It seems pretty unlikely to me that a country with an annual defense budget of $5 billion is going to be able to stretch $12 million very far. Frankly, I think the loss of the U.N. Automatic Teller will at least offset this modest recovery. It’s also a lot more favorable than what I read in the Chosun Ilbo yesterday — a report that Kim Jong Il would get back the entire 25 mil, ill-gotten gains and semi-ill-gotten gains.

On the other hand, none of that matters a spoonful of doenjang next to this:

The U.S. Treasury Department will bar U.S. banks from doing business with a Macau bank holding frozen North Korean assets believed connected to illegal activities, a U.S. official said on Tuesday.

According to some reports, this means that Banco Delta will cease to be, and that Macanese regulators will come in with metaphorical cutting torches and a flatbed to haul away its assets and sell them for scrap value.  [Update 3/18:

The move was widely expected to lead to the liquidation of the Macau bank, thus allowing the impoverished North to reclaim its frozen assets of some US$24 million in the process.  [Yonhap]]

At best, BDA will face extreme difficulty surviving. Now imagine yourself as an officer or major shareholder in any other bank. Ask yourself if you’d want to accept deposits from the Zokwang Trading Company or Tanchun Sinyong Company now. In fact, that’s just what’s been happening since September of 2005 — banks all over the world have concluded that doing business with Kim Jong Il isn’t worth the risk. That means there’s no place to put all the profits from drug smuggling, counterfeiting, or slave labor for that matter. Sure, the North Koreans can try to violate customs laws in the countries where they do business by smugging out the cash in bulk, or more likely through stored-value cards (slow pdf), but the danger of detection, seizure, and embarrassment is greatly increased, and such transactions are both inefficient and labor-intensive. Consider that as you wonder what Kim Jong Il was so furious about a measly 25 million. Treasury never designated North Korea itself under PATRIOT 311 — it should have — but this will have almost as serious an effect.

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Maximum pressure watch: North Korea, sanctions & diplomacy

The nature of human beings is to remember dramatic events longer than methodical processes, even when the methodical process may be of equal or greater importance. That may be why North Korea watchers remember the September 2005 action against Banco Delta Asia but tend to forget the greater part of the strategy that action served: sending Stuart Levey, Daniel Glaser, and other officials on a world tour to warn bankers and finance minister to cut their ties to Pyongyang or risk losing their access to the U.S. economy. It was not merely the stroke of one pen that brought Kim Jong-Il to the brink of insolvency; it was the stroke of a pen that put iron behind the velvet gloves that Levey and Glaser wore.

For months now, I’ve been watching for signs that the Trump administration would deploy such a strategy against Kim Jong-Un. The good news is that the signs of such an effort are now unmistakable. The bad news is that this effort is proceeding too slowly to deliver the necessary results in time. 

Starting in May, the President asked the leaders of the PhilippinesIndia (see also) and Vietnam to step up their enforcement of North Korea sanctions and cut their economic ties to Pyongyang. More recently, Ambassador Joseph Yun visited Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma to ask those governments to do likewise. Both Singapore and Malaysia have been havens for North Korean money laundering. Burma has long hosted North Korean arms dealers and been involved in suspicious arms-related deals with North Korea, including some involving nuclear technology. Yun’s message to Burma was that it should not expect the U.S. to restore full diplomatic relations until those dealings end.

Recently, the U.S. delivered a similar message to Sudan, another North Korean arms client. Otherwise, however, there is little evidence that the U.S. has pressured Namibia to shut down a North Korean arms factory, Angola to end its arms deals and use of slave labor, Egypt to expel its local KOMID representatives, or Tanzania to ensure that it cancels the registrations of North Korean ships.

Congress has also joined the effort by pressing Taiwan to cut its commercial ties in a provision of the new Taiwan Security Act. For an ostensible U.S. ally, Taiwan has been implicated in transferring sensitive technology to North Korea with disturbing frequency. For example, starting in 2009, the Treasury Department designated (and the U.N. Panel of Experts has repeatedly mentioned) a Taiwanese arms dealer and several of his companies for selling machine tools to North Korea. 

Last week, banking regulators in Latvia fined two banks for flunking their due diligence obligations to detect and prevent North Korean money laundering. Let’s hope that this is only the first of many similar moves by states to enforce the financial due diligence obligations found in paragraphs 11 through 16 of Resolution 2094, and in subsequent resolutions.

In 2016, while the Obama administration slept, South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yun Byung-Se, also went on tour and secured commitments from multiple states to reduce their economic ties with North Korea. It should not surprise us that since the election of Moon Jae-In filled the Blue House with advisors with histories of addlebrained appeasement or alarming, even violent, pro-North Korean activism, the pace of Seoul’s diplomacy has dropped off to almost nothing. I’ve found evidence of one effort by Seoul in sympathy with this campaign, when Moon had a telephone call with the UAE’s Crown Prince, although it’s far from clear whether he asked the UAE for anything specific, such as sending North Korean slave laborers home. Diplomatically, one can hardly say that Seoul is an ally at all anymore. It barely suffers the burden of accepting a subsidized defense from North Korean missiles, courtesy of American taxpayers.

Tokyo, by contrast, has coalesced with us in much a more valuable way, by joining the U.S. in the collective enforcement of sanctions designations against businesses that deal with Pyongyang, and against the Bank of Dandong. That strategy, which I’ve referred to as “progressive diplomacy,” and which involves coalescing with our friends first, and approaching our enemies only after they’ve been isolated, will greatly multiply the power of each designation.

I’ve noted before that collectively, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are China’s top three trading partners. I’ve sometimes wondered if that pressure would be even more effective if it took an analytical approach, akin to the Strategic Bombing Survey of World War II, that targets vulnerable or labor-intensive industries in cities such as Dandong and Dalian that trade with North Korea. There are some new tools in the KIMS Act that may be worth considering in the context of such a strategy. One that might be the most potentially devastating authorizes the President to target those cities’ ports.

If South Korea, Australia (see also), the U.K., and Europe were to join in this coalition, the diplomatic and financial pressure on Beijing and Pyongyang might be irresistible. Pyongyang sounds worried. For the long term, it should be. In the short term, however, promises by governments to enforce sanctions against North Korea sometimes mean less in practice than they do on paper, either because those governments backslide, or simply don’t understand what the sanctions require. It is helpful that the U.N. has finally published this summary of the sanctions. It would be more helpful if the U.N., the U.S., or the Financial Action Task Force would promulgate model legislation to ensure that states can easily enact legislation to enforce U.N. sanctions.

~   ~   ~

But nothing would be more important in implementing the President’s new strategy than good management in the White House. One necessary step would be for the new Chief of Staff to seize control of the vetting and nominations for key cabinet posts from the political commissars and return that authority to the cabinet secretaries the President chose. Even a sound strategy will fail unless it’s executed competently. The diplomatic visits described in this post began in early May, and so far, the results they have produced are neither clear nor decisive. They have proceeded at too slow a pace to address a problem as urgent as this.

You won’t find a more strident critic than me of the thinking that has predominated in the State Department, particularly with regard to North Korea. But it is one thing to criticize an agency’s culture and the policies it continued to support long after their failure was manifest. It is another thing to destroy the agency itself. Good diplomacy will be an essential element of “maximum pressure.” That not only requires better direction from the White House, it also requires good diplomats. 

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What the Trump administration’s first North Korea sanctions designations tell us

Last Friday’s designations of 11 individuals and one company by the Treasury Department are the first North Korea designations of the new Trump administration. So what do they tell us about the direction of the administration’s North Korea policy?

On the positive side, the designation of a North Korean coal company affiliated with the military should, in theory, send a strong message to its Chinese clients, although they don’t seem to have taken the last hint. Also on the positive side, the designated individuals are mostly front-men for North Korean banks, trading companies, arms dealers, and shippers in Russia, China, and Vietnam. It’s good that North Korean operatives in China — and Russia — aren’t off-limits. As I explained here, those governments are already obligated to expel most of these people by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

These are the kinds of targets we should be focused on to uproot His Porcine Majesty’s proliferation and money laundering networks, particularly in China. The designations will send a strong message to Russia and China to kick them out. They’ll also fill the Treasury Department’s SDN database — and consequently, the anti-money laundering compliance software the banking industry uses — with the names and addresses of North Korean agents and front companies. That will help make it harder for those agents’ bankers to defend their due diligence and compliance later, if and when Treasury files civil penalty cases against them.

On the not-so-positive side, this still isn’t what needs to be done — holding the Chinese banking industry accountable for breaking our laws and laundering North Korea’s money through our financial system. For a critical reaction to the new designations, see Anthony Ruggiero’s tweetstorm. As Anthony notes, all 12 entities designated last Friday are North Korean, so these are not the secondary sanctions we need to make North Korea sanctions effective.

Maybe it was too much to expect that some of North Korea’s Chinese front-men would be designated right before Xi Jinping arrives at Mar-a-Lago. I’ll be very interested in seeing what happens after Xi departs. If Trump really is the corrupt empty suit his harshest critics say he is, Xi Jinping will come to Mar-a-Lago, offer to turn a few Lotte stores into Trump hotels, and do what China always does when under sufficient pressure about North Korea — lie like a cheap rug until our national case of Attention Deficit Disorder sets in again.

Overall, however, I may be slightly less pessimistic than Anthony. For one thing, there is this report on the outcome of the administration’s policy review, which sounds like what I’d expected. For another, I interpret Trump’s statement that he’ll act against North Korea with or without China’s help as a threat to act against Kim Jong-un’s Chinese bankers and freeze his accounts. For another, although I might have expected Treasury to sanction Chinese enablers and trading companies now, I would not expect it to start nuking banks just yet. Instead, Trump’s message to Xi should be that the Bank of China is under investigation by the Treasury Department, soon to be followed by the Bank of Dandong and the 12 other banks that held accounts for Dandong Hongxiang and its many front companies and shell companies.

Finally, Trump can drop a veiled hint that ports that don’t inspect North Korean cargo, as U.N. Security Council resolutions require, can expect to be targeted with extra customs inspections. That could drive shippers away from those ports and damage the economies of those cities. Then, Trump would have someone leak that to the press and watch for signs like this.

As of today, however, it’s possible that none of those banks are under investigation because the investigative agencies simply don’t have enough staff to do it all. We’ll turn to that topic, and to this letter from senators Cory Gardner and Ed Markey, in tomorrow’s post. A full list of those designated last Friday below the fold (“continue reading” –>).

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Treasury sanctions, DOJ indicts Chinese for violating N. Korea sanctions

As of yesterday, and for the first time ever, the U.S. Treasury Department has frozen the assets of Chinese entities for violating North Korea sanctions, and the Justice Department has indicted them for sanctions violations, conspiracy, and money laundering. The company in question is the Liaoning Hongxiang Group of companies, of which Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Company Limited, or DHID, is the largest component. The individuals are Hong Jinhua, Luo Chuanxu, Zhou Jianshu, and Ma Xiaohong, the CEO of the Liaoning Hongxiang Group.

All were first implicated by the remarkable investigative work of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies and the Asan Institute, which is wonderful and also troubling, in that it should not have been left to a small nonprofit research group with funding from a South Korean think tank to do the work that the Treasury and Justice Departments should have done — protecting such core U.S. security interests as global nonproliferation, the integrity of the financial system, and freedom of speech in our own towns and neighborhoods. It is wonderful and disturbing that two very young and very bright people with a tiny budget and no security clearances have now done more damage to the financial networks that sustain His Corpulency’s misrule than the Obama administration did on its own in eight years. (Full disclosure: I met with C4ADS a few times since they started work last fall, to help them focus and target their investigation.) Here is how they did it.

To map these growing overseas networks, this report used open source databases, including corporate registries; court filings; Equasis maritime database records; customs and trade data provided by Panjiva, a customs trade data aggregator; and real time data on ship activities provided by Windward, a maritime data and analytics platform. The compiled information was consolidated using Palantir’s Gotham network analysis platform.

In Part I, we focused on building bulk datasets on companies, individuals, and ships. By using corporate and tax registries in East Asian countries, we were able to identify significant points of convergence across seemingly disparate networks and identify 562 ships, companies, and individuals within one degree of separation from known DPRK illicit and regime entities.

In Part II, we identified key nodes from our expanded dataset for a more in depth investigation. We focused, in particular, on one Chinese trading conglomerate that has conducted over $500 million of trade with the DPRK in the past five years. Within this network, we were able to identify its subsidiary and affiliated entities that have transacted an additional $300 million with sanctioned Burmese and North Korean entities, helped maintain the cyber infrastructure of the DPRK, and traded in various goods and services that raise serious non-proliferation concerns. [C4ADS]

The researchers also pulled and read court filings in China, Japan, and Hong Kong to uncover what appear to be significant pieces of North Korea’s overseas financial support and shipping networks. Typically for criminal networks, the North Koreans mix legal and illegal business to conceal their illicit activity and disguise the origin of their profits. The result is that some businesses “are likely to be inadvertently facilitating North Korean illicit activity,” while others, like DHID, do so willingly. I won’t try to do justice to C4ADS’s report here; just read the whole thing. Among its findings —

  • The report uncovered 248 companies, mostly registered in Hong Kong, that operate North Korea’s shipping fleet, much of it concealed behind shell companies and flags of convenience.
  • Liaoning Hongxiang Group is directly responsible for operating 10 of those ships, which import North Korean coal and help Pyongyang get around the “livelihood” loophole in UNSCR 2270.
  • DHID’s parent company, the Liaoning Hongxiang Group, helped to run the Cambodian ship registry, which Cambodia is currently in the process of nationalizing. C4ADS found that Cambodia in the principal registrar of reflagged North Korean ships. UNSCR 2270 prohibits the reflagging of ships owned, controlled, or crewed by North Korea.
  • DHID’s annual trade volume with North Korea was more than twice that of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and more than enough to fund North Korea’s nuclear program.
  • DHID may have facilitated North Korean exports to the United States, which would violate Executive Order 13570.
  • DHID has an equity stake the Bank of Dandong, which has previously been implicated in handling money transfers to North Korea, in violation of U.N. sanctions.
  • The Liaoning Hongxiang Group’s Vice Chairman had dealings with a sanctioned Burmese tycoon, Tay Za, who also bought a nuclear reactor from North Korea.
  • DHID entered into a joint venture with the Korea National Insurance Corporation, which defector Kim Kwang-jin has accused of insurance fraud, and which has been designated by the EU for the freezing of its assets for proliferation-related activities.

DHID’s parent company is a key facilitator of North Korea’s cyber architecture, which North Korea used in cyberattacks against SWIFT; against South Korean banks, nuclear power plants, and news media organizations; and against Sony Pictures. The empty brackets are for Chinese characters that WordPress can’t read:

Companies associated with the Liaoning Hongxiang Group provide services that are critical to the underlying cyber architecture of the DPRK, including the country’s primary email relay service, facilities from which hackers are alleged to operate, and IT firms producing software with possible military and regime applicability as will be discussed in this section. The Chilbosan Hotel [ ] in Shenyang, one of Liaoning Hongxiang’s joint ventures with the DPRK,117 is alleged to be the staging area for Bureau 121, a group of North Korean hackers.118 119 The source of the allegations is a North Korean defector, Kim Heun Kwang, a former computer science professor in Pyongyang, who escaped from North Korea in 2004 and gave detailed testimony on Bureau 121, a group that began large-scale operations in China in 2005.120 The group is reported to be comprised of about 1800 “cyber-warriors” and is considered the “elite of the military.”121 It has been widely reported that Bureau 121 may have been responsible for the 2014 Sony hack.122 The Chilbosan Hotel is majority owned by the North Korean Pyongyang Economic Exchange Society [ ], 123 which controls a 70% share of the company.124 The remaining 30% is owned by Liaoning Hongxiang Group member Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. Ltd.

The Chilbosan Hotel also shares a physical address with a company called Silibank.127 128 Silibank is an email relay service that charges for sending and receiving email through servers that connect from the DPRK, through China, and then to the outside world. Established in September 2001, Silibank is reportedly the DPRK’s first ISP provider,129 charging for its service in USD for each kilobyte sent.130 The company’s domain, silibank.com, is currently registered to a Chinese company called Liaoning Zhongtian Real Estate Development Co. [ ].

And finally, C4ADS found a link between DHID and North Korea’s WMD-related procurement operations:

Information found on Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Group shows that in several online classified ads and databases, Dandong Hongxiang sold products that could qualify as potential military and nuclear dual use products under the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security export restrictions.105 These goods included at least four dual use products: 99.7% pure aluminum ingots,106 aluminum oxide (Al2O3), ammonium paratungstate (APT), and tungsten trioxide (WO3).107 Information discovered using Panjiva customs records shows that Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Group sent two shipments of aluminum oxide worth a total of $253,219 to the DPRK as recently as September 2015.108 Classified ads posted by Shenyang Hongyang Fine Cermaics Co., which according to the Chinese business registry is owned by a Chinese national named Ma Xiaohong ???, listed “industrial spaceship” as a potential application for aluminum oxide (further investigation is required to confirm if they are the same individual).109 110

We cannot definitively identify the end-user of such goods, but there are clear dual use applications for the products listed. According to a leaked government cable, North Korea has sought to aquire aluminum ingots in the past. The cable further states that “these commodities have dual-use applications for the products listed. According to a leaked government cable, North Korea has sought to aquire aluminum ingots in the past. The cable further states that “these commodities have dual-use applications and could possibly be linked to the North Korean nuclear program.”111 Ammonium paratungstate and tungsten trioxide are byproducts of separating tungsten from its ore.112 A U.S. patent filed in 2010 states that tungsten trioxide is one of several oxidizing agents appropriate for use in a missile design with increased aerodynamic stability.113 According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, aluminum oxide is a component used to resist corrosion in gas centrifuges during uranium enrichment.114 In April 2013, a British company discovered that a firm they had been sending aluminum oxide to had links to the Iranian government’s nuclear program and immediately “ceased transactions. The article stated that “Aluminium oxide is an important material in gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium.”115 [C4ADS]

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Strictly speaking, the Treasury and Justice Departments sanctioned and prosecuted almost none of this conduct. Let’s turn to the Treasury Department designations first. The “NPWMD” means the assets were frozen under Executive Order 13382, which makes any transaction that facilitates North Korea’s WMD procurement not only sanctionable, but punishable with criminal penalties under section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA.

“Today’s action exposes a key illicit network supporting North Korea’s weapons proliferation,” said Adam J. Szubin, acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. “DHID and its employees sought to evade U.S. and UN sanctions, facilitating access to the U.S. financial system by a designated entity. Treasury will take forceful action to pressure North Korea’s proliferation network and to protect the U.S. financial system from abuse.”

OFAC designated China-based DHID for acting for or on behalf of North Korean-based KKBC. Specifically, DHID used an illicit network of front companies, financial facilitators, and trade representatives to facilitate transactions on behalf of KKBC. Ma Xiaohong, Zhou Jianshu, Hong Jinhua, and Luo Chuanxu were designated for acting for or on behalf of DHID.

KKBC was designated by OFAC under E.O. 13382 and the UN pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2270 for providing financial services in support of the previously designated entities Tanchon Commercial Bank and the Korea Hyoksin Trading Corporation. Both of those entities were designated pursuant to E.O. 13382 and UNSCR 1718 for their roles in North Korea’s WMD and missile programs. [Treasury Department press release]

As a result of Treasury’s designations, all dollar-denominated assets of the five targets are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from doing business with them.

Not to be outdone, the Justice Department has unwrapped an early Christmas present by unsealing an indictment of Hong, Luo, Ma, and Zhou, and DHID for conspiracy, money laundering, and IEEPA violations, for helping a sanctioned North Korean entity circumvent sanctions. That’s about as much as you’ll see about proliferation in these indictments; the only link to proliferation is the money DHID moved for a North Korean bank that had been sanctioned for proliferation.  The Justice Department also filed a civil forfeiture action against 25 bank accounts belonging to DHID, deposited in a who’s-who of Chinese banks. Want to know the names of the Chinese banks? You know you do.

  • China Merchants Bank
  • Shanghai Pudong Development Bank
  • Agricultural Bank of China
  • Bank of Communications Co. of China
  • Bank of Dandong (as predicted)
  • China Construction Bank
  • Guangdong Development Bank
  • Industrial & Commercial Bank of China
  • Bank of Dalian
  • Bank of Jinzhou
  • Hua Xia Bank
  • China Minsheng Banking Corporation

Contrary to what some news reports have written, a forfeiture action does not freeze assets; if effectively confiscates them. The ownership interest of the person who thought he owned the assets is legally extinguished if the government proves that assets are “involved in” illicit activity.

The banks themselves have no standing to challenge the forfeiture unless they can prove that they’d already closed the accounts. Typically, the feds will use 18 U.S.C. 981(k) to take an equivalent amount to the asset right out of the foreign bank’s U.S.-based correspondent account. It’s up to the foreign bank to make itself whole by taking an equivalent sum from the account holder, something that account holders usually agree to in the fine print of their account-holder agreements.

The actions are venued in the District of New Jersey because the Chinese banks that serviced DHID and the numerous shell companies it set up used Standard Chartered Bank and Deutsche Bank as their U.S. correspondent banks, and both banks based their dollar-clearing operations in New Jersey. I’ve explained how this works a few times before, but DOJ explained it well in its forfeiture complaint.

32. An interbank, also known as a correspondent bank, is a financial institution that provides services on behalf of another financial institution. It can facilitate wire transfers, conduct business transactions, accept deposits and gather documents on behalf of another financial institution. Correspondent banks are able to support international wire transfers for their customers in a currency that their customers normally do not hold on reserve. Correspondent banks in the U.S. facilitate these wire transfers by allowing foreign banks, located exclusively overseas, to maintain accounts at the correspondent bank in the U.S.

33. To obtain goods and services in the international market place, as North Korea must, it needs access to U.S. dollars as some international vendors require purchases to be made in U.S. dollars. As a result, North Korean entities, including designated entities such as KKBC, need access to the U.S. financial system.

The New Jersey venue is interesting, in that most correspondent banks operate in New York. (I wonder if that means we can expect to see another indictment in the Southern District of New York one day soon.)

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Although news reports have said that the indictment was for aiding North Korea’s WMD programs, that’s only indirectly true. The crux of the government’s case is that after August 2009, when Treasury designated Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation (KKBC) for WMD proliferation and blocked its access to the dollar system, DHID stepped in to serve as KKBC’s workaround and to launder its money. (Broadly defined, money laundering means moving or spending money that is “involved in” certain specified unlawful activity, whether as proceeds or as an instrumentality.) I’m often asked at this juncture why the North Koreans don’t just use Renminbi. I’ll let the Justice Department answer that.

35. Following the KKBC’s designation as an SDN by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in August 2009, DHID began working to find ways to conduct trade on behalf of KKBC despite the U.S. sanctions. One means of doing so was to use Chinese currency rather than U.S. dollars to conduct commodities transactions, so as to avoid sending money through the U.S. in violation of IEEPA. In July 2010, the City of Dandong, China highlighted press reports of a pilot program between DHID and KKBC to allow Chinese Renminbi (RMB) transactions to facilitate trade between China and North Korea.

36. North Korea’s trading needs, however, cannot be met using only Chinese currency. As a result, KKBC has continued to access the U.S. financial system to facilitate the purchase of goods in violation of U.S. sanctions. KKBC has done so by using DHID and its front companies.

In other words, what I said before — North Korea uses the dollar because that’s what sellers want, and also because (as I’ll explain later) Pyongyang is dollarizing to stabilize its economy.

When KKBC wanted to buy something in dollars — in this case, sugar and urea (used for fertilizer and explosives, and also, ewww) — it would place an order with DHID, which then bought the merchandise at a substantial mark-up — as much as 23 percent, through any one of 22 different front companies or shell companies it set up for just that purpose. That’s the kind of premium that, at least according to our friends in the FBI, people only charge to take the risks associated with breaking the law. Ma and DHID were initially well-positioned to charge these commissions due to Ma’s connections with Jang Song-thaek. Only when the guns of Jang’s firing squad fell silent, Ma’s business kept right on booming.

DHID and KKBC kept a ledger where KKBC would credit or debit DHID’s dollar account in KKBC in Pyongyang. The most suspicious transactions — those that involved a North Korean nexus — were all kept off the wires. Instead, DHID set up a whole series of shell companies, mostly registered in the British Virgin Islands or the Seychelles, and listing fictitious addresses in Hong Kong.

And how did DOJ find all of this out? Much of it obviously began with the C4ADS-Asan investigation, but there is much evidence in the indictment and forfeiture complaint that C4ADS didn’t write about. And why sugar and urea instead of, say, aluminum oxide? I can only speculate that those transactions were the easy ones to prove. Prosecutors prefer to charge the conduct that’s easiest to prove, especially if some of the other transactions with more jury appeal might also require proving up a longer, more complex chain of shell companies and beneficial owners.

All of which is our cue for a round of “Panama Papers Bingo,” which will allow you to read fun stuff about the shell companies named in the indictment and their corporate officers. By all means, leave a comment if you find something interesting in there, although I may hold your comment unpublished for a while for legal reasons.

Although the forfeiture action doesn’t say how much money was in the 25 accounts, it describes multiple transactions in the millions of dollars, including one that was for around $11 million. It wouldn’t surprise me if we learned that the total was well over $25 million, the amount that was blocked (but not forfeited) in the case of the Banco Delta Asia action.

Anyway, now you know why we wrote a section on “forfeiture of property” into the NKSPEA. Originally, we tried to create a special fund to pay for North Korea sanctions enforcement, broadcasting, and humanitarian purposes. Because that funding provision ended up on the cutting-room floor, the Justice and Treasury Departments will put the forfeited money into their respective forfeiture funds and use the money to pay for law enforcement operations. Where, as here, DOJ and Treasury worked the case together, they’ll typically work a deal for splitting that money up between them.

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So what will the impact of all of this be? Financially speaking, DHID and Ma aren’t likely to survive the experience. Because 80% of DHID’s business was North Korea-related, His Porcine Majesty will probably feel a significant impact. DOJ’s indictment quotes a DHID powerpoint presentation that claims that as of 2012, DHID handled 20% of the volume of Sino-North Korean trade, and claims that DHID’s business was growing at 30 percent each year. I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not, but my guess is that these figures are exaggerated for shareholder consumption. After all, DHID was willing to file a false certification with a certain Panama-based law firm — any guesses, kids? — denying that it had any links to North Korea (exhibit 3).

The greater effect may be the in terrorem impact this action will have on companies like the 88 Queensway Group that had dealings with sanctioned North Korean entities and felt untouchable, possibly because they thought their Chinese political connections would protect them from Uncle Sam. Ma herself was a made member of the Chinese Communist Party, and Sam Pa was a former Chinese spy. Equally well-connected figures may feel less invincible today.


GIFSoup

The bad news? Not only the fact that no Chinese banks are facing indictments for facilitating Hongxiang’s willful, long-standing money-laundering scheme, but also, the fact that in its press release, the Justice Department said that “[t]here are no allegations of wrongdoing by the U.S. correspondent banks or foreign banks that maintain these accounts.” I’ll discuss that in more detail in tomorrow’s post

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I don’t blame Obama for N. Korea’s nuke test. I blame him for not enforcing the law.

It’s grim vindication this morning to see my prediction from two months ago now validated. This bomb appears to have had a higher yield than those that preceded it, and may show progress toward miniaturization. I’d already posted my recommendations for how to respond to this test, back in July. For the U.N. Security Council, the response should include new rounds of designations and the closing of sanctions loopholes. I hope Samantha Power will also push for bans on North Korea’s exports of food and labor.

For the administration, the answer is simpler — it should enforce the law the President signed in February. Ed Royce, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has now added his voice to Senator Bob Corker’s prescient call for just that.

“The North Korean regime’s continued belligerence demands a strong and swift response.  The United States cannot accept a nuclear North Korea that threatens America and our foreign partners with mass destruction.  That’s why, earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined together to help impose unprecedented new sanctions on the Kim regime.  Sadly, however, it is clear the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts are falling short.

“Most notably, the administration has yet to impose sanctions on any of the many Chinese companies and banks that, according to a recent U.N. report, continue to support the North Korean regime.  This must change.  We’ve seen before that China will only comply with sanctions if Chinese banks face real consequences for doing business in North Korea.

“The United States and our foreign partners should also act quickly to sanction North Korea’s state-owned airline.  Air Koryo continues to flagrantly violate the ban on luxury goods and has been implicated in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts.  At the same time, the administration must also work with European governments to better block luxury items – including cars, watches, and liquor – from reaching North Korea’s repressive ruling elite.

“Aggressive sanctions enforcement, along with a renewed focus on stopping the North Korean regime’s export of slave labor, is key to cutting off the cash needed to sustain Kim Jong Un’s power, and his illicit weapons programs.  Today’s detonation wasn’t just about testing nuclear technology.  It was also about testing America’s resolve.  Now is the time for this administration to act.” [link]

Yes, there are more sanctions we can add that would confront Pyongyang with a clear choice between disarmament and extinction. Banning North Korea from SWIFT seems especially likely to be effective, and overdue. For the safety of our citizens alone, we’re long overdue for a tourist travel ban. And because the evidence is overwhelming that North Korea sponsors terrorism, the State Department should at least stop lying to the American people and denying that.

I don’t blame President Obama for the fact that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath.  I blame President Obama for not recognizing that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath, and for not recognizing the implications of that. Above all, I blame President Obama for not enforcing the law he signed in February, after the fourth nuke. Wasting eight critical years without agreeing on or implementing a North Korea policy may not stand out as one of this administration’s greatest foreign policy failures yet, but that’s only because it sits alongside his failure to support the Green Revolution in Iran, his non-response to the Syrian genocide, the fall of Anbar, the rise of ISIS, and a refugee crisis that threatens to destroy the European Union and its liberal social order.

No wonder Obama, sensing the weakness of his position, is now calling for “serious consequences” for North Korea. He holds the power to impose them now, but it sounds like he’s about to send Samantha Power back to the Security Council to bicker with the Chinese over the next resolution, too. He can enhance her bargaining power by sanctioning the Bank of China for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money, and by having someone in the Treasury Department leak a report that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation for the same. If we’re serious about avoiding war in Korea, we must be willing to shake the foundations of the Chinese banking system.

Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, gets it, however belatedly, and seems to realize exactly what’s at stake here. Her shrewd diplomatic and psychological warfare against Pyongyang has probably done far more damage to Kim Jong-un than anything Obama has done yet. She should now move beyond loudspeakers and open a second front in the information war for the hearts and minds of the North Korean people. As her opening act, as soon as the atmospheric conditions are favorable for good TV reception in Pyongyang, she should put Thae Yong-ho on the air to deliver a revolutionary manifesto to the Pyongyang elites. She should build a row of cell phone, AM radio, and TV towers on the mountaintops all along the DMZ. Then, she ought to get behind a guerrilla engagement strategy to undermine the regime’s control over the countryside.

For now, the calls in Seoul for nuclear armament and preemptive strikes are probably just talk, but they’ll continue to grow. The economic and security frameworks of the whole region are in greater danger than most of us realize.

As I said all along, the U.S. and South Korean election years almost guaranteed that this test would happen. I’ve also said that in the short term, sanctions would aggravate His Corpulency and force him to react. Anyone who knows anything at all about sanctions knows that they would take at least year or two to show significant impact, and that’s assuming they’re enforced. Unfortunately, they haven’t been — despite the fact that a string of high-profile defections has probably yielded more fresh financial intelligence about where Kim Jong-un’s money is than we’ve had in years. It’s long past time we used it.

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Update: To be clear here, I have no knowledge that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation or isn’t, but the BoD has been mentioned in previous reports as a holder of North Korean funds, and I expect to see more reporting in the coming weeks buttressing the case that they should be investigated.

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