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China cheats on the coal ban again

I still remember my excitement, bordering on giddiness, when in May 2013, a few big banks in China froze some North Korean accounts. That action came two months after the Treasury Department designated North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, and just over a week after Ed Royce dropped the first draft of the NKSPEA. But as we’ve learned from our friends in the FBI and the Justice Department since then, big Chinese banks began clearing the FTB’s transactions as soon as they felt that the coast was clear.

The lesson I’ve learned from this and other, similar episodes is that one should be cautious before believing any highly publicized case of China enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang or applying economic pressure to it. I’ve seen this show enough times to suspect that China has a deliberate media manipulation strategy of making a big deal of enforcing sanctions until reporters lose interest.

For example, reports that China has halted tourism to North Korea just before President Trump arrived in China seem suspect. Technically, there are no U.N. sanctions prohibiting tourist travel. North Korea’s business partners — UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d) if you doubt me — are obliged to “ensure” that they aren’t indirectly funding WMD programs and other prohibited purposes (spoiler alert: in a place like North Korea, they can’t), but I doubt that most Chinese businesses either know or care about that obligation yet. Instead, remember the ten-week rule: check back in ten weeks and I’ll tell you if it’s for real.

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Take the coal export cap under UNSCR 2321, which later became a coal ban in UNSCR 2371. Remember August, when China announced that it was halting coal imports from North Korea? We’ve since learned that this is yet another case of China initially complying with an obligation, only to resume its cheating as soon as reporters looked the other way. The flaw in this strategy is that nowadays, too many reporters don’t look the other way for long. The sharp-eyed crew at NK News has been especially diligent about spotting North Korean bulk carriers at Chinese coal terminals, but this time, I’ll credit VOA.

China imported 509,000 tons of coal from North Korea last month, raising doubts about its implementation of U.N. sanctions over Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs, Voice of America (VOA) reported Tuesday. VOA’s Korean Service said China bought US$44 million of coal from the North in September, citing data from the Korea International Trade Association. [Yonhap]

China is now saying that the coal landed in February but did not clear customs until September because Beijing implemented the ban so suddenly. But this does not resolve the question in China’s favor. First, under a strict reading, China should have returned any coal that wasn’t “imported” before the full ban. Second, by February, China had already exceeded the existing quota for 2017, under the most recent resolution then in effect, UNSCR 2321. Third, two of the three largest suppliers of North Korean coal are companies controlled by U.N.-designated entities — the Reconnaissance General Bureau and the Munitions Industry Department. If the RGB or the MID ultimately controlled the coal that was sold to China, China’s legal obligation under UNSCR 1718, paragraph 8(d), was to seize the coal and dispose of it. Hold that thought.

The resolution that finally imposed a total ban on coal exports, UNSCR 2371, does not have a grace period for coal exports. It’s a flat ban. Now, a friend with deep knowledge of the facts and law tells me it’s actually more complicated than that, for reasons that the person was unable to make clear to me. Still, I don’t see anything in the language of the resolution that permits the purchase of North Korean coal in September. I read this as a violation of the resolutions.

What can we do about that? For one, the President should be raising it with Xi Jinping. For another, if any of those coal transactions were denominated in dollars, paid to one of the blocked North Korean coal exporters, and cleared through the United States, he should unleash the Justice Department, whose aggressive prosecutors have begun to enforce the legal prohibitions against dealing with sanctioned North Korean entities strictly. The fact that Congress is keeping the pressure on and tightening the coal ban further will also help. It will take more of that strict enforcement to make the coal ban stick.

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On North Korea sanctions, evidence of an inflection point

As I’ve mentioned previously, this has been a busy month for me, and a difficult one for keeping up with the many developments in North Korea sanctions enforcement. Over the last months, I’ve been keeping a tally of how those efforts are taking shape. The accumulating evidence now gives reason for guarded optimism that at last, the sanctions are starting to show significant effects.

Financial. Treasury Undersecretary Sigal Mandelker sent the right message to the financial industry in her recent testimony before the Senate Banking Committee:

Banks worldwide should take note that we are acting to protect the U.S. financial system from North Korean illicit financial activity.  The new authorities granted to the Treasury Department by the Executive order issued last week give us even greater ability and leverage to target foreign banks that support the Kim regime.  We now have the ability to suspend correspondent account access to, or designate and freeze the assets of, any foreign financial institution that knowingly conducts significant transactions in connection with any trade with North Korea or on behalf of any North Korea-related designated person.  These new financial sanctions will be forward looking, and will apply to behavior that occurs following the date of the Executive order.  These types of sanctions were used to great effect in the Iran context, and present a stark choice to banks around the world.

Treasury took an important step late last month when it designated most of the remaining active North Korean banks (see the list in this post for reference). The designation of North Korea’s Central Bank, which issues its currency and has historically sold gold overseas, could be the most significant. But the designation of 26 individual North Korean bankers, trade representatives, and diplomats (read: money launderers and arms dealers) also matters, because banks everywhere now have a legal duty to close and/or freeze their accounts. Targeting these operatives in larger numbers makes it harder for the regime to react and shift funds to other operatives. The regime probably can’t replace these operatives and their valuable contacts faster than we’re designating them now.

Financial sanctions are also having second-order effects. The decision by China National Petroleum to stop selling fuel to North Korea reflects a concern that Pyongyang can’t pay for it, although Beijing has historically supplied fuel to Pyongyang through a cross-border pipeline, free of charge, and without reporting it in its official trade statistics.  Last month, I noted that banks in China were freezing or closing North Koreans’ accounts.

Similarly, the North Korean coal industry, which has been sanctioned by the U.N., and (perhaps more significantly) targeted by the U.S. Treasury and Justice departments for asset freezes, seizure warrants, and civil forfeiture suits, is clearly suffering, according to Daily NK interviews of citizens living near the mines.

In late September, China reportedly ordered joint ventures with North Korea to shut down. Since then, other reports have suggested that North Korean workers are returning from China in large numbers — despite the fact that U.N. sanctions allow those workers to complete their three-year contracts — and multiple reports suggest that Chinese businesses that relied on the cross-border trade have been hurt or idled. In Russia, too, North Korean money launderers are having trouble remitting funds.

Although most press reports have assumed that these developments were the result of Beijing ordering Chinese firms to comply with U.N. sanctions, I’ve theorized that the actual reason for these changes may be, as one Chinese trader put it, that their North Korean partnerscan’t pay us.” That is most likely a consequence of Chinese banks’ fear of losing their access to the dollar system. Chinese firms may also be concerned that products made with North Korean labor or materials will lose their access to U.S. markets, or that millions in profits may be frozen in correspondent accounts.

Historically, actions by Beijing have tended to generate optimistic headlines until, a few weeks later, we’d learn that its actions weren’t being enforced. It’s too early to conclude that this trend will continue, but it bears watching.

Designations. And yet, there are still some surprising oversights. It is objectively difficult to understand why, months after the U.N. and C4ADS exposed them, the feds still haven’t frozen and forfeited the assets of large North Korean arms-trading fronts like Glocom and Vast Win Trading, unless we believe that Malaysia, Singapore, and China are going to do that for us. Belatedly, Treasury has also designated one of the Chinese companies that sold North Korea the chassis that it converted into transporter-erector-launchers for its missiles.

Lawmakers like Senator Cory Gardner (R, CO) and Ed Markey (D, MA) recently introduced new legislation to toughen the sanctions even more, and to emphasize human rights — a key component that has been missing from our diplomatic efforts to build a global coalition. It’s good that they’re keeping the pressure on, and offering this useful course correction. Legislation is one way to do that, but another is to demand regular classified briefings, which means that congressional committee staffs need more staffers with the right clearance levels.

Diplomatic. A month ago, I aggregated the evidence that State’s efforts to isolate North Korea diplomatically — efforts that only began in the final weeks of the Obama administration, and that began to increase last spring — were starting to pay off. Spain, Mexico, Italy, Kuwait, and Peru all cut diplomatic relations with North Korea. Poland, the Philippines, Malaysia, India, the Sudan, Taiwan, Vietnam, and Egypt all announced that they would reduce trade relations with North Korea, or expel North Korean money launderers, slave laborers, or arms dealers.

Since the publication of that post, Portugal and the United Arab Emirates have also announced that they would sever relations with Pyongyang. The UAE also joins Kuwait in ending its acceptance of North Korean workers. Treasury’s removal of a number of Sudan designations suggests that the administration believes that Khartoum has also stopped buying North Korean weapons. Malaysia has banned travel to North Korea, and will not be replacing its withdrawn ambassador, in the wake of a brief hostage crisis early this year following the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. The EU has imposed new sanctions that ban oil and gas exports, textile imports, joint ventures and investments, and new work authorizations for North Korean laborers.

Finally, sanctions are, if slowly, taking their toll on the North Korean embassies that remain to sell its weapons and launder its money, by requiring national governments to freeze payments and shut down the businesses the embassies use to fund their salaries and operations. These developments represent not just a loss of multiple revenue sources, but also nodes within a global, interdependent money-laundering network.

Domestic. As state industries have increasingly struggled to meet their quotas, the regime has turned increasingly to the taxation of domestic industry, including small businesses, for its revenue. A new yuan-denominated tax on license plates suggests that even the state may be losing confidence in the North Korean won. That’s not entirely a bad thing, as one consequence of it is that more people gain a greater degree of economic independence from the state, people have more access to the things they need, there are more opportunities for corruption to siphon off more of this revenue, and the tax collection process puts more citizens into conflict with the state and its corrupt petty despots.

Personnel changes within the regime suggest that it may be under financial strain. An unconfirmed South Korean report says that Pyongyang may have replaced the head of Bureau 39. And whereas until recently, people associated with Jang Song-thaek were under suspicion, some are now being promoted. Jang’s network of operatives in China was Pyongyang’s financial root system. Their restoration might — I stress, might — mean that in its financial desperation, the regime is now (at least, temporarily) prioritizing money over loyalty.

Domestically, the regime is increasingly coming into conflict with its people as the regime squeezes them to make up for the loss of revenue, but the regime can only squeeze them so much: first, there is hardly anything left to steal from them; and second, as with the Great Confiscation of 2009, the regime knows that it has historically been economic conflicts with the state that have caused North Koreans to resist it. In the last six months, prices of fuel and other commodities have risen. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believes that North Koreans are already disgruntled over the economic effects of sanctions, and that the regime is “conducting a large-scale campaign” to suppress that disgruntlement. None of these developments is irreversible, but for the first time since 2007, there are clear signs that sanctions are starting to take a toll on Pyongyang’s access to the global economy.

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FBI, Treasury & DOJ hit N. Korean enablers with secondary sanctions, forfeitures

Two months ago, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) released its groundbreaking report, “Risky Business,” which used open-source business records to trace the 5,233 companies that (according to C4ADS) comprise nearly the entirety of North Korea’s “limited, centralized, and vulnerable” financial networks in China. At the time, I speculated that we hadn’t heard the last word from the FBI, the Treasury Department, and Justice Department, and yesterday, my suspicions were confirmed.

First, Treasury designated a series of North Korean, Chinese, and Russian nationals for dealing with sanctioned entities through the dollar system, in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The effect of the designations is to freeze any assets of those entities that are in the United States, prevent them from using the dollar system for future transactions, and prevent U.S. persons from providing them with any goods, services, or technology.

“Treasury will continue to increase pressure on North Korea by targeting those who support the advancement of nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and isolating them from the American financial system,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “It is unacceptable for individuals and companies in China, Russia, and elsewhere to enable North Korea to generate income used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region. We are taking actions consistent with UN sanctions to show that there are consequences for defying sanctions and providing support to North Korea, and to deter this activity in the future.” [Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

Among yesterday’s notable targets:

* China-based Dandong Rich Earth Trading Co., Ltd., for buying vanadium from sanctioned Korea Kumsan Trading Corporation, a front for the General Bureau of Atomic Energy.

* Russia-based Gefest-M LLC and its director, Ruben Kirakosyan, for procuring metals for sanctioned Korea Tangun Trading Corporation, a front for the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, which is involved in North Korea’s WMD and missile programs.

* China- and Hong Kong-based Mingzheng International Trading Limited (“Mingzheng”), the subject of this previous Justice Department forfeiture case, which acts as a front company for the Foreign Trade Bank (FTB) of North Korea. Treasury designated the FTB in 2013 for proliferation financing. The U.N. recently designated it in UNSCR 2371.

* Three more Chinese companies that are “collectively responsible for importing nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of North Korean coal between 2013 and 2016,” including Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Materials Co., Ltd. (“Zhicheng”), JinHou International Holding Co., Ltd., and Dandong Tianfu Trade Co., Ltd. Dandong Zhicheng was exposed by C4ADS as part of the Sun Sidong network in June. This is the single largest purchaser of North Korean coal. That’s going to leave a mark.

* Three Russians and two Singapore-based companies involved in providing oil to North Korea.

Transatlantic Partners Pte. Ltd. (“Transatlantic”), Mikhail Pisklin, and Andrey Serbin were designated pursuant to E.O. 13722 for operating in the energy industry in the North Korean economy. Pisklin, through Transatlantic, concluded a contract to purchase fuel oil with Daesong Credit Development Bank, a North Korean bank designated in 2016. Serbin is a representative of Transatlantic who worked with Irina Huish of Velmur Management Pte. Ltd. (“Velmur”) to purchase gasoil for delivery to North Korea. Velmur was designated for having materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, Transatlantic. Velmur also sold gasoil to North Korea. OFAC also designated Velmur’s executive director, Irina Huish, for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Velmur, and she has also worked with Transatlantic to circumvent sanctions. Both of these companies have attempted to use the U.S. financial system to send millions of dollars in payments on behalf of North Korea-related transactions.

Lest anyone accuse Treasury of singling China out, the designation of Singapore-based entities should send a strong message to a state that has largely overlooked the enforcement of North Korea sanctions and consequently become a haven for Pyongyang’s money laundering. I was also pleased to see Treasury go after KOMID’s slave labor racket and arms factory in Namibia, which I’ve previously written about here, here, and here, although I maintain that the NKSPEA also requires the President to sanction the Namibian entities that have knowingly dealt with sanctioned North Korean entities like KOMID. I hope Angola will be next.

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Just over an hour after Treasury released those designations, the Justice Department filed two civil forfeiture complaints against $11 million belonging to Velmur, Transatlantic, and Dandong Zhicheng. I downloaded both complaints from PACER, for the good of humanity, so you don’t have to.

Velmur complaint   |  Dandong Zhicheng complaint

You’re welcome, humanity.

This complaint alleges that Velmur and Transatlantic Partners Pte. Ltd. (Transatlantic) laundered United States dollars on behalf of sanctioned North Korean banks that were seeking to procure petroleum products from JSC Independent Petroleum Company (IPC), a designated entity. The complaint also seeks a civil monetary penalty against Velmur and Transatlantic for prior sanctions and money laundering violations related to this scheme.

According to the complaint, designated North Korean banks use front companies, including Transatlantic, to make U.S. dollar payments to Velmur. The complaint relates to funds that were transferred through four different companies and remitted to Velmur to wire funds to JSC Independent Petroleum Company (IPC), a Russian petroleum products supplier. On June 1, 2017, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) designated IPC. The designation noted that IPC had a contract to provide oil to North Korea and reportedly shipped over $1 million worth of petroleum products to North Korea. [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

Don’t focus on the fact that the putative claimants were selling fuel. Focus on the fact that they were dealing with a sanctioned North Korean entity through the dollar system, which is a felony. (U.N. sanctions only ban exports of aviation and rocket fuel, and U.S. fuel export sanctions are discretionary and have humanitarian exceptions.)

The government is seeking to forfeit $6,999,925 that was wired to Velmur in May 2017. The U.S. dollar payments, which cleared through the U.S., are alleged to violate U.S. law, because the entities were surreptitiously making them on behalf of the designated North Korean Banks, whose designation precluded such U.S. dollar transactions. The government also is seeking imposition of a monetary penalty commensurate with the millions of dollars allegedly laundered by Velmur and Transatlantic. [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

Regarding Dandong Zhicheng, a/k/a Dandong Chengtai …

The government is seeking to forfeit $4,083,935 that Dandong Chengtai wired on June 21, 2017 to Maison Trading, using their Chinese bank accounts. The investigation revealed that Maison Trading is a front company operated by a Dandong Chengtai employee. These U.S. dollar payments, which cleared through the United States, are alleged to violate U.S. law, because the recent North Korean sanctions law specifically barred U.S. dollar transactions involving North Korean coal and the proceeds of these transactions were for the benefit of the North Korea Worker’s Party, whose designation precluded such U.S. dollar transactions.

This case relates to a previously unsealed opinion from Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which found that probable cause existed to seize funds belonging to Dandong Chengtai.  [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

As noted here. And lest we forget to give credit where it’s due …

The FBI’s Phoenix Field Office is investigating the case involving Velmur Management Pte Ltd. and Transatlantic Partners Pte., Ltd. The FBI’s Chicago Field Office is investigating the case involving Dandong Chengtai Trading Co. Ltd. Both investigations are being supported by the FBI Counterproliferation Center.

Assistant U.S Attorneys Arvind K. Lal, Zia M. Faruqui, Christopher B. Brown, Deborah Curtis, Ari Redbord, and Brian P. Hudak, all of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, are prosecuting both cases. Paralegal Specialist Toni Anne Donato and Legal Assistant Jessica McCormick are providing assistance. [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

Finally, let’s not forget the important work of C4ADS. Today, it will release an update to “Risky Business,” revealing that in addition to having funds in U.S. banks, the Chinese national who runs Dandong Zhicheng, Sun Sidong, owns real estate in the United States. Check C4ADS’s web site for the update.  

When I read C4ADS’s reports, I’m often reminded of the line from “Lawrence of Arabia” when Mr. Dryden (delivered by the wonderfully dry and underrated British actor Claude Rains) learns that Lawrence has conquered the Turkish base at Aqaba with an army of Arab tribesmen: “Before he did it, I’d have said it couldn’t be done.” Indeed, for years, scholars at famous think tanks assured us it couldn’t be done. First, they told us that sanctions against North Korea were maxed out. Then, they told us that Pyongyang’s networks were needles in a field of haystacks, and that the field itself was obscured and beyond our sight. And yet, without so much as a single security clearance between them, two brilliant young analysts at C4ADS mined data from open sources and traced the networks. It may be on the brink of proving all the “experts” wrong.

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Update: C4ADS writes in to say that the update was delayed, and will be released in a few days.

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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.

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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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OFK Exclusive: House, Senate move new North Korea sanctions legislation

Last year, Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Cory Gardner, Chairman of the Senate Asia Subcommittee, led the charge to cut Pyongyang’s access to the hard currency that sustains it by drafting and passing the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. We’ve known all along that nothing short of presenting Kim Jong-Un with an existential choice — disarm and reform, or perish — would create the conditions for a negotiated disarmament of North Korea, assuming that’s still possible. And we’ve always known that it would take several years for even aggressively enforced sanctions to present Pyongyang with that choice.

One nuclear test and multiple missile tests later, neither international compliance with U.N. resolutions nor (until very recently) U.S. enforcement of the NKSPEA has been enough to either change Kim Jong-Un’s mind or weaken his hold on power. Congress now seeks to raise the pressure on Pyongyang by closing loopholes in existing sanctions, attacking its developing sources of income (textiles, fisheries, and labor exports), catching U.S. law up with new U.N. sanctions, and most importantly, increasing penalties for foreign banks and governments that (for various reasons) haven’t complied with the U.N. resolutions.

Ed Royce continues to lead this effort with the KIMS Act, which passed the House overwhelmingly in May, and which has now been merged into Title III of the Russia, Iran and North Korea Sanctions Act of 2017, or RINKSA. But the foreign affairs committees can only go so far in attacking Pyongyang’s cash flow through financial regulation before the parliamentarians in Congress give primary jurisdiction over a bill to the financial services committees. Some of the most important remaining sanctions loopholes are within the banking committees’ jurisdiction.

Introducing S.1591, the BRINK Act

An unlikely champion has stepped into this void in the form of Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a liberal Democrat who sits on the Senate Banking Committee. I say “unlikely,” because historically, it hasn’t been liberal Democrats who’ve led Congress’s efforts to raise the pressure on Pyongyang. This would be a good time to abandon any assumption that Democrats are soft on North Korea. Now, Van Hollen and Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have introduced S.1591, the Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea Act, or BRINK Act, of 2017.  The text of the bill, which you can read herehasn’t been posted on GovTrack or Congress.gov, although the bill itself was introduced several days ago. At the outset, I’ll just get this bit of full disclosure out of the way. I’ve had some discussions with Senator Van Hollen’s staff about this bill, and ….

The BRINK Act is a tough and sophisticated piece of legislation. It will be a strong complement to both the NKSPEA and the RINKSA. This post will discuss its key provisions, starting with the definitions. A very important new one that appears in multiple places in the bill is “North Korean covered property:”

That definition potentially covers just about every transaction the North Korean government profits from. The key question, of course, is whether the U.S. can reach any given transaction in NKCP — either because a U.S. person (or a foreign subsidiary) is a party to the transaction, or because part of that transaction occurs in the United States (most likely, because a financial transaction is cleared through a U.S. correspondent bank, or because a product seeks to enter U.S. commerce).

Another significant definition is “knowingly,” which includes circumstances in which a party to the transaction “should have known” that it was prohibited.

Section 101 of the BRINK Act creates a blacklist of Chinese and other foreign banks that are failing their due diligence obligations to prevent North Korea from accessing the financial system, or are helping North Korea evade sanctions by facilitating offshore dollar clearing, or dealing with North Korea in precious metals or other stores of value. It then provides a list of sanctions that restrict the access of those banks to the U.S. financial market, add additional civil penalties to the criminal penalties under 31 U.S.C. 5322, or (at worst) block their assets here.

Like all of the sanctions under the BRINK Act, this sanction can be suspended if North Korea makes progress toward disarmament and accounting for American POW/MIAs, and can be lifted when North Korea completes that disarmament and accounting.

Section 102 requires any transactions in North Korean covered property within U.S. jurisdiction (involving a U.S. person or occurring in whole or in part in the United States) to be licensed by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. As we’ve learned from recent actions by the Justice Department, North Korea’s banks, smugglers, and money launderers — and their Chinese bankers — tend to evade OFAC licensing requirements, despite their preference for dealing in U.S. dollars. Under this provision, any unlicensed transactions in NKCP are punishable by a $5 million fine and 20 years in prison. More importantly, the proceeds of unlicensed transactions, and property “involved in” unlicensed transactions, will be subject to forfeiture. In most cases, that’s the only form of “punishment” we have the power to impose on the targets of these activities.

Section 103 authorizes sanctions against providers of specialized financial messaging services to North Korean financial institutions, a topic I previously covered here, here, and here.

Section 104 authorizes new sanctions against foreign governments that fail to comply with U.N. sanctions, such as those that require member states to freeze the property and close the offices of designated North Korean entities (KOMID, Korea Kwangson Bank, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Bureau 39, etc.), to expel representatives of North Korean banks and North Korean diplomats who engage in arms trafficking, and to deregister North Korean ships. For governments identified as noncompliant, the U.S. can limit exports of goods or technology to those countries, withhold foreign aid, and instruct our diplomats to vote against them getting IMF, World Bank, and other international loans. This provision may well put teeth into sections 313 and 317 of the RINKSA (discussed below) and broadens the sanctions authorities of section 203 of the NKSPEA. 

Section 105 authorizes grants for governmental and non-governmental organizations that currently provide the U.S. government with much of its actionable intelligence on North Korea money laundering — the U.N. Panel of Experts, and private groups like the Center for Advanced Defense Studies and Sayari Analytics. (Again, this complements a provision in the RINKSA — specifically, section 323, which provides rewards for informants who provide information leading to the arrest of persons responsible for North Korean money laundering or cyber attacks).

Section 106 requires a report on North Korea’s use of beneficial ownership rules to mask its interests in property (previously discussed here).

Section 107 directs the President to team up with the World Bank’s stolen assets recovery initiative to go out and find the hidden, ill-gotten gains of Kim Jong-Un and his minions, wherever in the world they can be found, block them, and release them for humanitarian use.

Section 108 will undoubtedly create headlines in South Korea — it urges South Korea not to reopen Kaesong until North Korea completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantles its nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons systems and any systems for delivering them.

Sections 201 through 204 call on and encourage assets and pension fund managers to divest from companies that have investments in North Korea, and immunize those fund managers from suit for any such divestment.

The KIMS Act becomes Title III of the RINKSA

For a while, it looked like all that would survive of the KIMS Act in the Senate was an untitled bill called S.1562, which removed most of the KIMS Act’s toughest provisions except for secondary sanctions on North Korea’s labor exports. But last week, S.1562 was referred, ironically enough, to the Banking Committee, taking it out of the hands of Foreign Relations. More importantly, the White House is also signaling its support for a newer bill, the Russia, Iran, and North Korea Sanctions Act. The RINKSA incorporates nearly all of the KIMS Act into Title III (full text here; scroll down to page 144).

Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed some concern about how easy it will be to pass a bill that big this year. I don’t have the knowledge to say whether this was a good tactical move or not, so I’ll defer to the congressional leadership on that point. (Some of us are keenly aware that Congress still has to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act this year, or it will expire.) Instead, I’ll describe the provisions of Title III in a bit more detail than I described the KIMS Act before.

Section 311 amends the key provision of the NKSPEA, section 104, to expand both the mandatory sanctions of section 104(a) and the discretionary sanctions of NKSPEA 104(b). Mandatory sanctions would now apply to purchases of precious metals from North Korea, selling aviation or rocket fuel to North Korea, providing bunkering services for any U.N.- or U.S.-designated ship, reflagging North Korean ships, or providing correspondent services to any North Korean bank (Title III, section 312, also codifies a prohibition on providing indirect correspondent account services to North Korean banks).

Section 311 also expands the President’s discretionary authority to designate and sanction persons who violate U.N. sanctions, and U.S. regulations and executive orders, that apply to North Korea. These new, discretionary authorities also authorize the President to designate persons who purchase more coal and iron ore than U.N. limits allow, who purchase textiles or food products from North Korea, who transfer bulk cash or other stores of value to North Korea, and who export crude oil to North Korea (humanitarian exports of gasoline, diesel, and heavy fuel oil are exempt). Other new sanctions authorities apply to North Korea’s online gambling, sale of fishing rights, labor exports, and banking, transportation, and energy sectors.

Some of these areas are already subject to the potential for asset freezes under Executive Order 13722, but designations under section 104(a) or 104(b) of the NKSPEA can have additional and more severe consequences.

Sections 313 and 317 are secondary sanctions provisions applicable to governments that aren’t complying with U.N. sanctions. Section 313 amends and strengthens NKSPEA 203 sanctions against governments that engage in arms deals with North Korea, by denying them most foreign assistance. Section 317 creates a blacklist of noncompliant governments, which would dovetail nicely with the sanctions provisions of section 104 of the BRINK Act.

Section 314 expands the President’s authority to increase customs inspections for cargo coming from ports that fail to inspect all cargo going to or coming from North Korea, as required by UNSCR 2270. This provision is a secondary shipping sanction. It presents a very real risk that cargo coming to the U.S. from noncompliant ports may be held up longer in Customs, which could cause shippers to take their business elsewhere. As with all secondary sanctions, it forces third-country entities to choose between doing business with the U.S., or with North Korea. It also provides a list of suspect ports in China, Russia, Iran, and Syria that would be first in line to blacklisted for additional inspections.

Section 315 is another secondary shipping sanction, and a very tough one indeed — ships flagged by countries that reflag North Korean ships (a violation of UNSCR 2270 and 2321) could be denied access to U.S. ports and waterways. Vessels that have visited North Korea recently, for other than strictly humanitarian purposes, could also be banned.

Section 316 orders a report on WMD cooperation between North Korea and Iran.

Section 318 orders a report on whether SWIFT and other providers of specialized financial messaging continue to service North Korean banks, including those designated by the U.N.

Section 321 is a set of powerful sanctions against employers of North Korean labor and the sellers of products made with North Korean labor. It subjects those employers to potential sanctions under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act or the freezing of their assets. Governments that allow the use of North Korean labor could also see their TVPA status drop. A rebuttable presumption would apply to any goods made with North Korean materials or labor, excluding from U.S. commerce under section 307 of the Tariff Act.

Section 323 provides for the government to pay rewards to informers — whether these be defectors or NGOs — that provide information leading to the arrest of North Korean money launderers or persons responsible for cyber attacks.

Section 324 again raises the pressure on the State Department to declare North Korea to be a state sponsor of terrorism.

~   ~   ~

Both of these bills attempt to attack North Korea’s third-country enablers. Legislation of this kind is necessarily creative and complex because it’s not always obvious how the U.S. can reach North Korea’s income while minimizing harm to legitimate commerce and to the North Korean people. If the target only does business with North Korea, then our next option is to target the bankers, shippers, and insurers that deal with the primary target and force them to choose between access to the U.S. or the North Korean economy. The most common ways we can influence the conduct of these enablers are (1) prohibiting U.S. persons and their subsidiaries from dealing with the target; (2) denying the target access to U.S. financial markets, trade, foreign assistance, and technology. Clearly, the U.S. has a stronger case when it enforces the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution than when it acts alone.

While it may be too difficult to merge RINKSA Title III and the BRINK Act at this point in the congressional calendar, the two bills would go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Minor inconsistencies between the two will likely be resolved by amendments to the BRINK Act. I’ll defer to others how best to enact them, but each bill serves important purposes in making sanctions work, and in presenting Kim Jong-Un with that existential choice.

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C4ADS: Pyongyang’s networks in China are “centralized, limited, and vulnerable” to sanctions 

Because I’ve already given too many minutes of my life to the moveable farce named Dennis Rodman, I’m devoting today’s post to something more consequential: the Center for Advanced Defense Studies’s new report exposing more North Korean financial networks in China, and dispelling the misinformation that North Korea is isolated from the financial system and thus sanctions-proof. (Full disclosure: I advised C4ADS on the drafting of the report, without compensation of course.) Money quote:

The continuing misperceptions of North Korea as the “Hermit Kingdom” or “the most sanctioned country in the world,” are fueling the narrative behind the narrowing of non-military options on the Korean peninsula. In truth, the North Korean regime, far from being isolated, is globally active throsugh its overseas networks. The impact of these misperceptions is considerable, most notably in the false belief that sanctions cannot succeed on a “closed” country like North Korea. 

Following on last September’s exposé on Dandong Hongxiang, C4ADS sifted through public databases, shipping registries, and business records to widen its focus and try to find the extent of North Korea’s financial network in China. From this, C4ADS found, contrary to a lot of widely disseminated misinformation, that North Korea’s network is centralized, limited, and vulnerable to detection and sanctions:

Centralized. For example, C4ADS dug further into the role of Dandong Hongxiang and found it to be highly centralized around key nodes. It also exposed two more networks that were similarly centralized. In one case, C4ADS started with the seizure of the M/V Jie Shun at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal with a record haul of North Korean weapons (mostly PG-7 anti-tank rockets) aboard, which I figure were probably bound for Syria. Starting from the findings of the UN Panel of Experts (see paragraphs 61 through 71), C4ADS worked backward through shipping registries and corporate records and identified the holder of the Jie Shun’s compliance document as a Chinese national named Fan Mintian. Fan runs a company called V-Star Ships.

Fan and V-Star have been operating openly in China, helping North Korea evade shipping sanctions for at least four years. V-Ships did (much? all?) of its business through the dollar system, clearing its payments through the United States. Sadly, C4ADS doesn’t identify the author of the “please do not send us any instructions” email, which sounds like the kind of thing the FBI and the Justice Department may find worthy of further investigation, to say the least.

In another case, Wells Fargo was the correspondent bank, and its compliance officers were alert and on the job, and refused to process V-Star’s transactions. People may praise bankers even less than they praise lawyers, but here’s to Wells Fargo, for taking its compliance obligations seriously and refusing to launder money for North Korea.

Yet another major Chinese network, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Inc. (DZMM) may be an even more important node for Pyongyang than Dandong Hongxiang. DZMM buys coal from North Korea. 

Three North Korean companies are currently designated by the Treasury Department: Daewon Industries (a part of Pyongyang’s military-industrial complex, designated in December), Kangbong Trading Company (same), and Paeksol Trading Corporation (controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, designated in March). If DZMM willfully engaged in dollar transactions with any of those companies after their respective designations — and I stress that I don’t see proof of all of these elements from C4ADS’s report alone — that could constitute any of several federal felonies: violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, money laundering under 18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(2), or conspiracy to commit either of the aforementioned under 18 U.S.C. 371. Even if you don’t arrest a single suspect, the Justice Department can bankrupt those networks by blocking their funds as they move through the financial system and forfeiting them.

Limited. C4ADS found that just 5,233 companies are involved in bilateral trade between China and North Korea, with the top ten companies controlling about 30 percent of it. If 5,233 sounds like a lot, last year, there were 67,163 Chinese companies exporting to South Korea. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few state-controlled companies is consistent with Pyongyang’s centralized and controlling ways of running everything else. Even then, further research revealed that many of these companies were interconnected:

That means knocking over a few major networks could collapse much of the system that sustains His Porcine Majesty’s rule. C4ADS’s report even lays those connections out in charts.

And yet again, as with Ma Xiaohong, the person running a North Korean trade network turns out to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Arguably, our third attribute should be “inculpatory,” but it isn’t.

Vulnerable. Regular readers of the U.N. Panel’s reports will find North Korea’s methods of concealing its network aren’t qualitatively different than those used by terrorists, narco-traffickers, or other rogue regimes to launder money and evade sanctions; hence, the limiting reagents in U.S. sanctions enforcement are primarily political will and resources (cops, intelligence analysts, and lawyers). Contrary to widely-held assumptions, the networks are detectable.

The report goes on to note that because of “these networks’ reliance on the licit systems of finance, trade, and transportation … they leave behind a digital trail within public records, and other data sources, and are acutely vulnerable to targeted sanctions.” They also leave money trails. C4ADS’s conclusions reinforce what the U.N. Panel of Experts and the Justice Department have already established — that North Korea’s networks continue to launder their money through the dollar system. That’s a critical vulnerability that no U.S. president has yet had the political will to exploit. 

The last time C4ADS published a report, Treasury designations, an indictment, and a civil forfeiture complaint soon followed. Which doesn’t sound imminent this time, judging by this Wall Street Journal report covering the C4ADS report. It suggests that the Trump administration is still in the bargaining stage with Beijing, asking it to curtail the activities of Chinese companies, run by party members, that are knowingly violating U.N. sanctions. 

The Trump administration has asked Beijing to take action against nearly 10 Chinese companies and individuals to curb their trading with North Korea, according to senior U.S. officials, as part of a strategy to decapitate the key networks that support Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program.

Although there is no firm deadline, the U.S. has indicated the Treasury Department could impose unilateral sanctions on some of these entities before the end of the summer if Beijing doesn’t act, the U.S. officials said. [WSJ, Jay Solomon]

While you’re at it, don’t miss Solomon’s other recent report on another North Korean network in China, which I didn’t have time to blog about when it came out.

So as with the Obama administration, we’re back to asking Bejing to enforce sanctions it has spent the last ten years willfully violating. That similarity must owe a great deal to the fact that Trump can’t get key appointees in place to execute a policy that resembles his tough talk. For all the talk of sabotage by the “deep state,” the effect of slow appointments is that the administration ends up abdicating a lot of policy decisions to holdovers and similarly disposed career civil servants. In any event, let no one say that sanctions against North Korea can’t work, if we ever muster the will to use them.

~   ~   ~

Update: At the Washington Post, Anna Fifield adds:

Targeting just a few pivotal Chinese companies could severely disrupt North Korea’s ability to circumvent international sanctions and buy illicit goods — and could even cause its entire overseas network to collapse, according to a report out Tuesday.

[….]

The new report, by Washington-based research group C4ADS, lays out multiple ways for Beijing to cut off North Korea’s trading routes to the outside world, if it wanted to. It also found a Chinese citizen who was conducting large amounts of trade with North Korea while serving as president of a company in the United States — a status that would allow him to open bank accounts and send or receive shipments.

“By being centralized, limited and ultimately vulnerable North Korean overseas networks are, by their nature, ripe for disruption,” C4ADS researchers wrote in the report, titled “Risky Business.”

[….]

There is still plenty more to be done, C4ADS writes. “Although to date economic coercion has been ineffective in persuading North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, this does not mean it cannot work,” the researchers say. 

On the contrary, targeting key companies could cripple multiple networks across multiple countries simultaneously, they write, because so many of these firms are intertwined.

[….]

The C4ADS researchers said focusing on these kinds of logistical “chokepoints” could cut off North Korea’s centralized, global system of illicit finance. 

For example, the Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co., which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last year — sending a sudden chill through the border city that acts as North Korea’s main commercial gateway to the outside world — is one of 18 companies that make up the Liaoning Hongxiang Group. This suggests the potential for an indirect effect if one company is stopped from helping North Korea, perhaps disrupting numerous other linked companies.

“Based on what we’re seeing in the data in terms of the reach and scope of these networks and the limited nature of the system that they live in, and the contamination with illicit activity, there is inherent value to enforcement actions,” said David Thompson, a senior analyst at C4ADS.  [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

See also this Washington Post editorial, citing the C4ADS report.

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China is cheating on the North Korea coal import ban (again) (with updates)

Via the indispensable Leo Byrne:

Two North Korea-linked ships have arrived at two separate coal terminals in Shanghai since Sunday, while one other was departing the area after having left a third facility at a similar time.

Satellite imagery shows that each of the terminals is equipped to handle coal. The UN currently restricts member states from importing North Korean coal, while Beijing has said numerous times that it has suspended all imports for the remainder of 2017.

“Imagery indicates these sites are primarily used for coal unloading. Some of the larger port areas are multi-use, but the specific berths that the ships were tracked to appear to primarily handle bulk coal,” Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based satellite imagery analyst, told NK Pro. [NK Pro]

As Byrne notes, this isn’t the first time in recent months China has been caught breaking its promise to stop importing North Korean coal this year. In addition to this, in 2016, China imported twice as much coal as permitted under a U.N. import cap. Much of North Korea’s coal trade is controlled by the North Korean military, or its external spy/terrorist/hacker agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

China’s failure to identify the North Korean links to the ships is, at a bare minimum, negligent. For example, one of the ships, the Pu Hung 1, is controlled by Rungrado General Trading Corporation, which deals in various goods and services including slave labor, which had been mentioned in U.N. Panel of Expert reports for proliferation, and which the Treasury Department designated in December.

Byrne links two other ships to one Hiroshi Kasatsugu. You can read about Mr. Kasatsugu’s links to Mirae Shipping, a front for U.N.- and U.S.-designated Ocean Maritime Management Company, in paragraphs 143 through 148 of the 2015 report of the U.N. Panel of Experts.

One of the ships that recently arrived in a Chinese coal terminal, and which is linked to Mr. Kasatsugu, was later sold to a front for none other than Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, or DHID. DHID is under indictment in a U.S. federal court in New Jersey for money laundering, conspiracy, and sanctions violations on behalf of North Korea.

China is obligated to expel representatives of U.N.-designated entities, including Ocean Maritime Management, which the U.N. designated in 2014, yet Mr. Kasatsugu apparently continues to operate there. Not that this should surprise us, given how many members of North Korea’s proliferation network operate openly in China.

Brian Moore said it best:

I’ve come to the conclusion that official Chinese trade statistics are to certain journalists and economists what pro wrestling is to certain 10-year-old boys. So for this round, it’s NK News 1, Yonhap -1.

Mark your calendars for July 15th, everyone.

~   ~   ~

Updates:

It’s an oversight on my part that this post didn’t also work in Byrne’s reporting on other Chinese businesses helping North Korea register ships associated with its smuggling fleet. UNSCR 2321, paragraph 24 requires U.N. members states to “de-register any vessel that is owned, controlled, or operated by the DPRK.”

Expect to hear much more about this topic soon, from another source.

China is also increasing imports of North Korean iron ore. Under paragraph 26(c) of UNSCR 2321, the U.N. banned imports of North Korean iron ore except for “livelihood” purposes unrelated to its WMD programs — whatever that means in Chinese.

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Former Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen on N. Korea, China, and secondary sanctions

A recurring theme in the North Korea sanctions debate is that most of those who really understand what our sanctions on North Korea do and don’t do, and how they work, think they can work against North Korea, if we ever bother to enforce them (see, e.g., Juan ZarateAnthony Ruggiero, Peter Harrell, George A. Lopez, and Bill Newcomb). Unfortunately, the actual experts are at variance with another group, consisting mostly of academics, retired politicians, retired diplomats, and experts in other fields, who say that sanctions either won’t work, or aren’t an alternative to a deal Kim Jong-un doesn’t even want. What most of these people have in common is a lack of any significant training or expertise on sanctions. Yet for whatever reason, some editors just can’t get enough of their op-eds, although it should be said that the editors of the Washington Post are more persuaded by the actual experts).

Because I see a very real danger that the policy views of those who’ve misjudged North Korea’s intentions all along, and who did so much to bring us to the worst nuclear crisis since 1962, could drown out the views of professional sanctions practitioners who offer us our last, best policy alternative to a devastating war, I do what little I can to amplify the views of experts who step forward to inform us. The latest example is David Cohen, who served as Deputy CIA Director and Undersecretary of the Treasury under President Obama:

In dealing with North Korea, the Trump administration should look to Iran. Specifically, it should take a page out of the Obama administration’s Iran sanctions playbook and apply against North Korea the tool used successfully to bring Iran to the nuclear negotiating table — “secondary sanctions” on those who do business with the regime. [David Cohen, The Washington Post]

As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops of this isolated outpost and elsewhere, until the reinforcements began to arrive …

North Korea is not, by any stretch, “sanctioned out.” Despite a broad set of international and U.S. sanctions, North Korea has gotten off relatively easy, especially as compared with Iran. That is largely because the United States has historically been reluctant to impose secondary sanctions to isolate North Korea, particularly against China, the regime’s principal legitimate trading partner. Certainly, the Trump administration should do its best to bring the Chinese government on board. But if China drags its feet, President Trump should proceed anyway.

And, consistent with the strategy behind the NKSPEA, hopefully soon to be strengthened by H.R. 1644

Secondary sanctions are both simple and enormously powerful. They work by presenting a stark choice to a foreign bank: It can process transactions for a bank already facing sanctions (for example, one of the many North Korean banks that have been listed by the United States) or it can maintain its access to the U.S. financial system, but it cannot do both. That presents an easy choice, because access to the U.S. financial system, which also means access to the U.S. dollar, is a practical necessity for almost any bank anywhere in the world.

Cohen then adds facts that are undoubtedly informed by financial intelligence to which he would have had access.
Adopting secondary sanctions against North Korea could cut the last tendrils of its access to the international financial system. As a recent assessment by a special U.N. committee reportedly concluded, North Korean banks and trading companies operate in China through China-based front companies. These front companies, in turn, have accounts at Chinese banks, from which they are able to do business globally, including in the United States.

Cohen then addresses the question of how “China” would react. Some experts, including some officials who continue to occupy senior posts in the State Department, insist that sanctions can’t work without Beijing’s voluntary cooperation. Certainly, there are some sanctions, such as customs inspections at China’s ports and borders, that can only work with China’s cooperation, although the NKSPEA and H.R. 1644 both have provisions to sanction uncooperative ports, shippers, and shipping registries.

I’ve also argued for a more nuanced view of “China,” in that such a large and complex country is not a monolith, but a collection of constituencies within both government and industry that would have different responses to secondary sanctions. In Cohen’s view, it’s the views of the financial sector that really matter, and just as with Banco Delta Asia, China’s banking industry responded cooperated.

When I was serving in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration, we employed secondary sanctions to significantly ramp up pressure on the Iranian government. Hundreds of foreign banks that had been transacting with sanctioned Iranian banks voluntarily severed those relationships, thereby isolating much of the Iranian banking system.

But two banks in particular continued to work with sanctioned Iranian banks. One was China-based Kunlun Bank, a midsize institution that, our financial intelligence told us, “provided hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of financial services” to a half-dozen sanctioned Iranian banks. Despite repeated warnings to the Chinese government, Kunlun refused to stop such activity. So in August 2012, Treasury used the secondary sanctions tool and cut off Kunlun from the U.S. financial system.

What happened next is instructive. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a relatively tepid and formulaic protest — and, behind the scenes, the Chinese government directed Kunlun to stop. Despite what some had feared, employing secondary sanctions against Kunlun neither led China to stop cooperating on Iran nor soured our relations with Beijing in any other respect.

And just as our strategic bombing campaign against Germany only had to paralyze a few critical industries (fuel) to be effective, targeted financial warfare against Pyongyang can be effective without targeting North Korea as a whole, if it can paralyze the regime’s finances.

I’ve pushed the boundaries of the Fair Use Doctrine far enough for one day, so read the rest of Cohen’s op-ed on your own. He goes on to suggest that the White House’s saber-rattling, which I view as harmful to our interests in Korea and Japan, may be designed to show China that the alternative to sanctions would be far worse, and that enforcing sanctions is a prerequisite to effective disarmament negotiations. He then advocates for a strategy of hitting the mid-sized Chinese banks that deal with North Korea first and leaving the bigger ones for later.

I don’t object to the first part of this strategy, although I also believe that some of the bigger banks, which are more likely to have branches in New York, should be targeted now with subpoenas to audit their compliance with the new Treasury regulation cutting off North Korean banks’ provision of indirect correspondent banking services. That’s one way to get the big banks to clean up their acts without actually taking legal action against them.

Banks that turn out to have violated the correspondent ban can don’t have to be targeted with measures as drastic as designation under NKSPEA 104 or Patriot Act 311; rather, they can be hit with civil penalties such as those applied to European banks that violated Iran sanctions. Under those circumstances, I’m confident that Congress wouldn’t object to a waiver under NKSPEA 208(c). In fact, we specifically wrote the exemption in 208(c)(1) to allow banks to agree to cooperate and provide additional financial intelligence, and to clean up their acts on money laundering compliance, pursuant to deferred prosecution agreements. Our options against non-cooperative banks are not all binary or nuclear, but vary across a wide spectrum of options.

For now, it looks like the Trump administration has decided to give China an opportunity to act on its own. I hope that opportunity is brief. Despite reports of fuel shortages and non-functioning ATMs in Pyongyang, you can color me skeptical; I’ve seen it all before. China’s strategy seems to be to generate headlines that it’s enforcing sanctions, only to ease off the moment those headlines reach the eyes of busy White House and congressional staffers. Then, as soon as Washington quits paying attention, it’s back to business as usual. The latestdevelopments with the so-called coal ban are only the latest example of China’s long record of broken commitments to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang.

I don’t object to giving China a brief opportunity to cooperate voluntarily, but it’s important to understand a few things. First, with China, the negotiation really begins after the contract is signed. Second, cheating is inevitable. Third, all of those diverse constituencies in China are watching how we react very carefully. Fourth, deterrence is as important in financial matters as it is in military matters. In the same sense that we keep forces in South Korea to deter North Korea from a military attack, having a strong legal and investigative team in place can help deter China from abusing our financial system. Right now, that force is badly understaffed and lacks political backing — and China knows it. There is no better way to show Beijing — and more importantly, China’s banking industry — that we’re serious than by staffing up the inter-agency working group that will investigate, enforce, and prosecute the violations of our money laundering laws that keep Kim Jong-un on his throne.

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Stop the war. Enforce sanctions.

If Kim Jong-un’s strategy is what I think it is, it involves provoking a series of escalating security crises, with a plan to “de-escalate” each one through talks, or ideally, though an extended-yet-inconclusive “peace treaty” negotiation, in exchange for a series of pre-planned concessions that would amount to a slow-motion surrender of South Korea. I say “escalating” because Pyongyang’s provocations have escalated in recent years, and because it’s a sure bet they’ll escalate even more after Pyongyang has an effective nuclear arsenal. From that moment, it could be as little as five years before Pyongyang’s strategy achieves sufficient hegemony to exercise significant control over South Korea’s politics, media, textbooks, defense policies, and economic resources, and to effectively intimidate any noisy defectors and activists into silence.

Along the way, however, the risks are great that either a miscalculation, or a U.S. or ROK refusal to slouch passively toward surrender, would end in the most devastating war since 1945. In this post, I will argue that if North Korea cannot be disarmed without war, war is inevitable, but also that premature talk of war impedes our chances of disarming Pyongyang peacefully.

Those who invited this crisis by counseling us to indulge Pyongyang now insist that Pyongyang’s only purpose for acquiring nuclear weapons is to protect itself. But having watched Pyongyang wage the war of skirmishes it resumed in 2010 with the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do attacks, I cannot agree that Pyongyang’s objective is merely regime survival. Pyongyang knows that it cannot survive forever as the poorer Korea. Rather, its strategy is to coerce Seoul into a political framework that allows it to exercise and expand its political and economic control over all of Korea. Its master plan does not involve an occupation of the South for the foreseeable future; instead, it contemplates using South Korea’s own government to enforce its writ.

If this belief makes me an outlier, so be it. Just bear in mind that what you and I believe is possible matters less than what Kim Jong-un believes is possible. I also believe that Pyongyang is closer to achieving these objectives than most Americans or South Koreans suspect. Americans underestimate how many South Koreans would willingly sacrifice freedom for the sake of “peace,” or “inter-Korean relations.” Freedom, after all, is as difficult a thing to appreciate as peace unless you’ve lived without it. But if you think that sacrifice would prevent war, keep reading.

One waypoint toward Pyongyang’s objective is sanctions relief from Seoul. This is not just for the primary economic benefits of, say, reopening Kaesong. Any laxity by Seoul in enforcing U.N. sanctions would have far greater secondary benefits for Pyongyang. It would have domino effects in the capitals of North Korea’s arms clients and enablers throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, would create more diplomatic distance between Washington and Seoul, and would break up the global sanctions enforcement coalition-building strategy that had finally taken shape. It would also put Seoul in direct conflict with the Trump administration’s emerging policy, which will emphasize economic pressure. The economic benefits of unearned sanctions relief would help Pyongyang validate its “byungjin” policy by enriching its elites, by showing off its selective prosperity to its sympathizers abroad, and by underwriting its political control over its own “wavering” and “hostile” classes.

Another waypoint is to undermine political support for Seoul’s military alliance with Washington in both capitals. Pyongyang seeks to strain that alliance by raising war fears, and by getting exercises canceled and key weapons systems (read: THAAD, Patriots) withdrawn. It wants to show South Koreans and Americans that this alliance is more risk than it’s worth. If the point comes when the alliance does more to constrain U.S. options and advance them, that time may come sooner than most of us expect.

The war scare that swept through Twitter last week advanced Pyongyang toward that objective. The Pentagon quickly debunked it, and for now, the White House’s strategy is moving toward a well-thought-through list of North Korean industries and targets for sanctions. I could not have said it better than the headline over Grant Newsham’s recent piece for the Asia Times: “Before attacking North Korea, please try everything else.” The subhead to his piece was, “Try sanctions, real sanctions.” (Do read the entire piece.) War talk is not only premature and unnecessary, it’s apt to help bring Pyongyang closer to realizing its political objectives by scaring South Koreans into wanting the U.S. gone.

Maybe some of this war talk is simple disinformation or bad journalism. My fear is that the White House thinks raising the fear of war will put Pyongyang and Beijing off their game and raise our leverage. It needs to understand that a war panic could cost us the confidence of people in Japan and South Korea whose support we’ll need to prevent war. This crisis is scary enough at it is. Turning well-grounded concerns into panic serves no one’s interests but Kim Jong-un’s.

But it is also true that the anti-sanctions / talk-to-North-Korea crowd is, however unintentionally, also contributing to the risk of war. To their credit, most of them are at least honest enough to admit that they no longer believe a negotiated nuclear disarmament of North Korea is possible. They should also be honest enough to admit that accepting North Korea’s nuclear status will lead to a catastrophic war, not peace. A nuclear North Korea will not coexist with us, with South Korea, or with human civilization itself. As Anthony Ruggiero and I recently noted:

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un last month sent assassins to Malaysia to murder his half-brother in a crowded airport terminal with a chemical weapon. Pyongyang has sent assassins abroad to kidnap and kill human rights activists and dissidents, proliferated ballistic missiles, and sold weapons — including man-portable surface-to-air missiles — to terrorists and their sponsors. It attacked South Korea twice in 2010: sinking a warship and shelling a fishing village, which killed 50 of its citizens. The hermit kingdom is a state sponsor of terrorism, even in the absence of a formal designation: it has helped Syria use chemical weapons against its own people, and attacked our freedom of expression with terrorist threats against movie theaters across the United States.

Nor can the U.S. invest its hopes in talks alone. Pyongyang insists that it will neither freeze nor dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. U.S. envoys have met with their North Korean counterparts during almost every year in the last decade, yet failed to induce Pyongyang to return to disarmament talks. In 2012, President Obama finally secured Pyongyang’s agreement to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. Two weeks later, Pyongyang reneged.

I might add that in 2007, North Korea secretly built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS. There is no compromise, no half-surrender, no piece of paper that will secure peace and prevent war without Pyongyang’s disarmament and without fundamental humanitarian reforms. As long as Pyongyang possesses weapons of mass destruction, and as long as its model of survival is based on terror and secrecy, it will still pose an existential threat to the United States, to Americans’ freedom of speech, and to the security of the entire world. As the Sony cyber terrorist threat, the Bangladesh Bank theft, and the horrors in Syria have shown us, North Korea isn’t just a Korean problem, it is, as President Trump said recently, “a humanity problem.” If you really think the solution to this is as simple as “talk to them,” at least review the record on just how many times President Obama and his predecessors tried to do exactly that.

That’s why, in the medium term, the U.S. may well decide that it must strike first to prevent a direct North Korean nuclear threat to the American people. The more Washington trusts Seoul, the more value it sees in maintaining an alliance with Seoul to help disarm Pyongyang peacefully, and the less likely war is. The less Washington trusts Seoul, the less certain it is whose side Seoul is on, and the less certain it is that a warning to Seoul wouldn’t also be a tip-off to Pyongyang, the less likely President Trump is to warn Seoul of a preemptive strike. You don’t have to tell me the risks of this. There are people in South Korea I love. Not that it should matter; the people on both sides of the DMZ who would suffer are human beings. We should want all of them to have a chance not only to survive, but also to live.

[Korean refugees flee south, 1950. This photo, by Max Desfor, won a Pulitzer Prize.]

There are times when I suspect that it requires a Ph.D. to harbor the madness that we can ever have peace with a “responsible” nuclear North Korea. Thankfully, the first 2,000 names in the telephone directory have a firmer grasp on reality than this. Only 35 percent of them support preemptive strikes, but just 11 percent of them support the idea of accepting that North Korea will keep building nukes. Overwhelming majorities want us to enforce sanctions (80 percent) and continue our diplomatic efforts to stop North Korea’s nuclear program (81 percent). They hold uniformly dim views of North Korea (78 percent “unfavorable” and 61 percent “very unfavorable”). Majorities are “very concerned” about North Korea having nuclear weapons (65 percent) but would still support the use of force if an Asian ally got into a “serious conflict” with North Korea (64 percent).

Each week that passes diminishes our chances to prevent another war in Korea. There is no more time to be wasted on the palliative policies of engagement and talks that have produced no positive results, and which have done so much to bring us to the present crisis by paying Pyongyang to nuke up. For now, there is no chance that talks will achieve our key aim of disarming Pyongyang, but it would be a grave error to rule out talks entirely, because the time will come when diplomacy will be essential to preventing war. If sanctions and political subversion bring Pyongyang to the point where it fears (and Beijing also fears) that its regime will collapse — and to achieve the necessary pressure to disarm Pyongyang, they must — then we must leave Pyongyang a diplomatic escape that, while distasteful to it (and in some regards, to us) is still preferable to war. But for now, our choice increasingly comes down to making sanctions work or accepting that war is inevitable.

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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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Royce introduces bill to toughen sanctions on N. Korea; subcommittee holds hearing

The big news yesterday was that Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced a sequel to the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, or NKSPEA. You can read the full text here, but briefly, the bill —

  1. Expands the mandatory and discretionary sanctions in NKSPEA 104 to match the sanctions added by UNSCR 2270 and UNSCR 2321. It also adds a few more, like authorizing Treasury to sanction anyone who imports food from North Korea — a gravely immoral thing when so many North Koreans are going hungry, and when the state obviously isn’t using its food export revenue to buy gbrain to feed them.
  2. Provides new authorities to ban North Korea from financial messaging networks. Of course, SWIFT is reportedly disconnecting all North Korean banks, but this provision now becomes important to prevent SWIFT’s less reputable competitors from taking that business on.
  3. Codifies the Treasury Department’s new regulatory ban on providing indirect correspondent account services to North Korean banks.
  4. Toughens the NKSPEA 203 provisions denying aid to states (mostly in Africa and the Middle East) that buy weapons from North Korea.
  5. Toughens the NKSPEA 205 provision allowing U.S. Customs to increase inspections of cargo coming from ports that aren’t meeting their UNSCR 2270 obligations to inspect North Korean cargo. It also creates a blacklist of non-compliant ports, including Dandong and Dalian. That could put pressure on those ports to either meet their inspection obligations or shun North Korean cargo altogether. Think of it as the customs equivalent of Banco Delta Asia. But I haven’t even told you the best part yet.
  6. Creates the authority for secondary shipping sanctions against North Korea by giving the Coast Guard the authority to ban ships, shippers, and flags that violate U.N. shipping sanctions from U.S. ports and waterways. That will make for some lively discussions with the Ways and Means and Transportation committee staffers. It also takes a page from the South Koreans and Japanese who’ve enacted similar measures. That would effectively bring the U.S. into a coalition with those nations to isolate North Korea from the global trade system. Given that this coalition would now include China’s three largest trading partners, that’s potentially quite a powerful measure. And as I’ve noted more than once, let there be no doubt that it was China that started the trade war over North Korea. This is how we stand by our allies and deter economic bullying.
  7. Increases sanctions against companies that employ North Korean slave labor, and threatens to raise the tier status of those governments under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
  8. Adds a new condition for the suspension of sanctions — that North Korea permit Korean-Americans to have unrestricted and unmonitored meetings with their North Korean relatives before they die.
  9. Offers rewards to defectors, and maybe other informants, who provide information leading to the arrest or conviction (in any country) of persons involved in North Korean WMD, cyberattacks, or money laundering.
  10. Piles on more pressure to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

And we still haven’t even seen the member amendments, which promise to be lovely. (On a related note, the Senate is also moving separate legislation to sanction the companies that have participated in China’s island-building in the South China Sea.) This promises to be an action-packed year for all you sanctions geeks out there. The dark circles under my eyes should be proof enough.

~   ~   ~

The other big event yesterday was the first hearing run by the new Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, Ted Yoho of Florida. As of yesterday morning, I hadn’t really viewed Yoho as a thought leader on Asia policy, but after his performance yesterday, I’ve reassessed that view. Yoho ran a tight ship, kept the proceedings on time, and despite this being his debut, projected a sense of calm command of the proceedings. More importantly, both Yoho and new Ranking Member Brad Sherman came in extremely well-briefed on the issue, and in full command of the facts. There was undoubtedly some first-rate staff work behind that. They’ve clearly digested the Panel of Experts’ latest, something that I’m still in the process of doing. You should really watch the whole thing:

The panel members were Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, Professor Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School, and former State/Treasury official Anthony Ruggiero, who has added much-needed expertise to the debate about sanctions policy and administration. I thought all three were extremely effective in breaking through to the members, but then, I consider all three men to be good friends, so I won’t even pretend to be objective. I’ll just post a money quote from each of them. First, Klingner sets the stage for where we find ourselves today, and why Americans should care:

Professor Lee’s statement, frankly, is some of his best work. It’s a must-read, not just for its historical insight about the often-strained relationship between China and North Korea and what that doesn’t mean, and not just for its insight into North Korea’s political objectives, but for the beauty of its prose (which Chairman Yoho also praised).

Ruggiero then brings his practical experience and careful research to the often-underinformed discussion of sanctions as a policy tool. And if I had to pick one panelist whose testimony really seems to have broken through to the Committee members, it’s probably Ruggiero, who reformatted their c-drives about a lot of junk analysis about sanctions:

Thanks for that!

Ruggiero also had some choice words for SWIFT, which I’ll let you read on your own.

With the Trump administration about to conclude its policy review and clearly headed in the direction of a harder line that will emphasize sanctions without sparing Chinese violators, this advice will undoubtedly find audiences in the White House, the National Security Council, and the State and Treasury Departments. My guess is it’s going to be a tense dinner at Mar-a-Lago when — or if — Xi Jinping comes around. But as I’ve said before, our relations will China may have to get worse before they can get better.

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Will China cooperate on North Korea sanctions? That depends on which “China” you mean.

I often talk about the importance of pressuring China to pressure North Korea. When I do, people sometimes cock their heads like my dog would do when he heard a new sound, and ask me whether China would cooperate with that. I answer this question with a question of my own: “Which China?” China, for all its top-down authoritarianism, isn’t a monolith. Like most societies, it has different constituencies with different views that fear different risks and pursue different interests. That’s why my answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second.

If you mean the Chinese defense establishment, which is constitutionally hostile to the United States and sees itself as in a zero-sum, Cold War competition against us, the answer will always be “no.” That China is our enemy by its own choice. Its default is to view anything that’s bad for America as good for China. Its attitude is probably hardening.

If you mean the Chinese foreign policy establishment, the answer will also be “no,” but its obstructionism might be tempered by strategic compromises or interrupted by some temporary feints at compliance (currently, the so-called coal ban). It’s almost as hostile to us as the defense establishment, but it pursues its ambitions more intelligently. It may despise Kim Jong-un, or it might just be pretending to, but either way, it probably despises us even more. Still, it recognizes the value of playing us, and it does that very well.

If you mean the Chinese businesses that willingly deal with North Korea, the answer will be “no” as long as North Korea’s checks clear, and it will be “yes” the instant they don’t, and it will be “yes” the instant the businessmen learn — to their abject horror — that some other businessman who deals with North Korea just had his bank accounts frozen and couldn’t make the payments on his Buick and that America can really do that.

If you mean the Chinese Finance Ministry, it will be “no” until we raise the cost of non-cooperation to unsustainable levels, by threatening to depress the levels of growth it must sustain to pay pensions for its aging population and maintain economic stability. That is its mission. And interestingly enough, China’s terrible reputation for financial integrity is a growing threat to that mission. I’ll explain in a moment.

If you mean the Chinese banks, it will be “no” until subpoenas start to rain down on their New York branches and their lawyers tell them that the only way to avoid the fate of BNP Paribas is to cooperate with the feds and settle for reduced civil penalties and deferred prosecution.

It’s a misnomer to refer to a “Chinese” banking industry that relies on access to foreign finance, and thus subjects itself to foreign regulation. Going global can cause some culture shock for banks that are used to China’s lax Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulation. For the last few years, Treasury’s AML focus has been on European and Middle Eastern banks dealing with Iran, so Chinese banks have had a (mostly) free ride from the feds. But New York and EU regulators haven’t been as laissez-faire about AML compliance and have been handing them some stiff fines. That’s why People’s Bank of China officials recently “pledged a tougher fight against money laundering.”

Behind this clarion call by Beijing’s bank supervisors was an unnerving realization that some of the nation’s biggest banks had left themselves vulnerable to anti-money-laundering sweeps by regulators abroad.

This vulnerability stems from ambitious overseas expansions in recent years by the Bank of China (BOC), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and other powerful, state-owned lenders. As of June, according to official data, China’s biggest bank, the ICBC, was operating 412 branches in 42 countries, while the BOC had 564 branches in 46 countries. China Construction Bank (CCB) counted 140 overseas branches, and Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) had 17. [Caixin Global]

Here comes the culture shock.

At home, according to banking experts who spoke with Caixin, Chinese banks have been operating in a regulatory environment that’s generally soft on money laundering rules for financial institutions. Some of these banks have thus learned the hard way that many regulators outside China not only diligently enforce rules designed to prevent dirty transactions, but are also eager to slap violators with heavy fines and even imprisonment.

And also, don’t usually take bribes.

The BOC, the nation’s fourth-largest lender, reportedly agreed on Feb. 17 to pay 600,000 euros ($634,000) to settle a money laundering case involving its branch in Milan, Italy. The branch had been targeted by Italian investigators since June 2015 who had looked into whether BOC helped clients transfer to China about 2 million euros linked to criminal activity.

In addition, a judge in the Italian city of Florence on the same day handed four BOC-Milan branch employees two-year suspended prison sentences after they were convicted of breaking Italy’s anti-money-laundering laws.

A Hong Kong-based expert on money laundering who declined to be named said while the fine against BOC-Milan was comparatively “moderate,” the criminal convictions were “surprising.” The decisions in Italy followed a November decision in the United States by New York state’s Department of Financial Services, which fined a local ABC branch $215 million for illicit money transfers.

By now, it has become reasonably clear that the Trump administration will soon revoke the sub rosa immunity the Obama administration had given Chinese banks to launder North Korea’s money. Not only will Chinese banks have to worry about EU and state regulators, they’ll have to start worrying about the Treasury Department, too.

That isn’t just a worry for China’s smaller, shadier banks. Some of the biggest banks in China were servicing North Korean customers until at least early 2016. Others were named in the Dandong Hongxiang case for doing so months later. Some of those banks have branches in New York. Those without still depend on U.S. correspondents to process their payments through the financial system, just as Banco Delta Asia once did.

The correspondents, in turn, have legal duties to comply with Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and AML regulations, which will require them to ask questions about the names, nationalities, and passport numbers of their customers; whether they’re sanctioned by the UN, Treasury, or the EU; and whether their business addresses are, say, shell companies in the British Virgin Islands, or empty offices next door to the local North Korean embassy. Treasury expects banks to hire qualified compliance specialists, employ highly specialized compliance software, and implement AML and KYC compliance procedures.

If Treasury begins to enforce those rules, banks will skimp on AML and KYC compliance (such as) at their own peril. If you click those last two links, you’ll see that I just cited examples of Chinese banks that got away with lax compliance in the past. The Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) is an example of one that didn’t:

After the branch opened in August 2012, Yu worked to boost the ABC’s interbank-transaction business through trade financing and other services. His goal was to quickly expand assets at the branch, which was ABC’s only operation in the United States.

But Yu’s strategy apparently exposed the branch to compliance risks, as his favorite businesses involved transactions executed on behalf of other banks’ customers. And ABC had limited access to information about those customers.

Yu maintained his strategic focus despite a 2014 warning by the central bank pointing to risks associated with overseas banking services.

Until a whistleblower came along, anyway.

But that same year, Taft’s allegations landed on investigator desks at the New York Fed, triggering a probe that led to a Fed order in September: ABC was given 60 days to deliver a plan for fixing risk management flaws and enhancing money controls at the New York branch.

The fines were levied two months later after New York state regulators determined ABC had deliberately failed to scrutinize dubious money transfers.

Now for the part where the bank rolls over, cooperates, and promises to get its compliance act together to reduce its penalty.

Sources close to the matter said an original fine of $500 million was eventually cut by more than half following negotiations between regulators and ABC-New York. The branch also agreed to hire an independent, regulator-approved monitor to assess its business.

“After the incident, ABC (headquarters in China) held several meetings emphasizing managing overseas branches and subsidiaries,” said a source at the bank.

Nevertheless, the bank’s reputation had taken a major hit. In November, for example, the credit rating agency Moody’s said the regulatory penalty had highlighted oversight failures at ABC and would have a negative effect on the bank’s credit rating.

Political subversion and human intelligence can be another wedge to incentivize banks to make better choices. Every arrest or defection of a North Korean diplomat or financier has the potential to expose more parts of Pyongyang’s financial network and implicate the banks that skirted the law to do business with them. If banks begin to see North Korea itself as unstable, more of them will begin to see North Korean customers as legally risky. The best possible way for a bank to mitigate that risk? File a Suspicious Activity Report with the Treasury Department and cooperate.

All of which is a long way of saying that China’s generals and diplomats almost certainly won’t cooperate on North Korea, at least not voluntarily — and not yet. That will make it harder to enforce sanctions (especially trade sanctions) but by no means impossible, because the Chinese banking industry has to cooperate. China’s generals and diplomats may not want commercial banks to be AML compliant, but China’s central bank does. Banks in Malaysia, Russia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Tanzania will face the same choice, of course, but China is the lynchpin, the Abbottabad of North Korea’s illicit finance. That finance is absolutely essential to Kim Jong-un’s capacity to buy, sell, import, export, pay, fuel, repair, and sustain. The Workers’ Party almost certainly keeps most of its money in Chinese banks. After all, what are you going to buy with all the money in Pyongyang, especially now that correspondent relationships with North Korean banks are banned by both the U.N. and the U.S.? Answer: stuff imported from China, bought with dollars held on deposit in a Chinese bank.

Freeze those dollars and Pyongyang is living on borrowed time. Sure, you can smuggle bulk cash a few million dollars at a time. Sure, you can run uninsured rust-buckets across the Yellow Sea with their lights and transponders turned off, carrying away whatever wares that cash buys, at least until all the (uninsured) ships smack into rocks, get T-boned by oil tankers, or get seized at the entrance to some canal or another. Drug cartels can run that way for years, but that isn’t a sustainable model for ruling over 23 million increasingly informed and resentful people.

Now that I’ve laid this foundation, you’ll understand the legal and policy implications of my upcoming post about what U.N. Panel of Experts report, and what it just told us about China, North Korea, and money laundering.

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Trump admin leaning toward tougher sanctions & (maybe) “covert actions”

For weeks, we’ve heard that the Trump administration was expected to complete a top-to-bottom review of North Korea policy by the end of this month. Barely into the second week, Reuters is already giving us a peek at where the review is headed. Skim past the mandatory all-options-are-on-the-table disclaimer and “senior U.S. officials” say this:

They added a consensus was forming around relying for now on increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially by pressing China to do more to rein in North Korea – while deploying advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and possibly in Japan, as well. [Reuters]

Just as I predicted somewhere, the North Koreans did something provocative early in Trump’s presidency, and that strategy backfired bigly:

Among the other possibilities, one U.S. official said, was returning North Korea to the U.S. list of countries that support terrorism. That would be a response to the suspected use of nerve gas to kill Kim’s brother at a Malaysian airport last month. It would subject Pyongyang – already heavily sanctioned by the United Nations and individual states, so far to little effect – to additional financial sanctions that were removed when it was taken off the list in 2008.

Sensibly, “U.S. officials” have concluded that bombing them is too dangerous an option, and just as sensibly, they say that the idea could “gain traction” if Pyongyang approaches the capability of nuking the U.S. This also intrigued me very much.

Trump also could opt for escalating cyber attacks and other covert actions aimed at undermining the North Korean leadership, a U.S. government source said.

As I say, it takes many instruments to play a symphony, and “covert actions” would do rather nicely in complementing sanctions as a means to shift the internal balance of power in North Korea and convince the elites that they must change or be changed.

Yonhap aggregates reports from various sources, including Reuters, and also concludes, “For now, a consensus is forming around the option of increasing economic and diplomatic pressure, especially by pressing China to exercise more of its leverage over Pyongyang while beefing up defenses with advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.” 

Other recent reports lend credibility to that view.

The cancellation of the visas for the North Korean diplomats who were on their way to Track 1.5 talks in Washington certainly doesn’t suggest that Trump is desperate to deal now. I wouldn’t read that as a complete aversion to talks so much as a sound judgment that this isn’t the time, because (1) we have no leverage to bargain with, (2) North Korea had just carried out a missile test and history’s first state-sponsored act of WMD terrorism, and (3) North Korea’s pre-talks declarations that its nukes and missiles were off the table. Ergo, talk about what?

A series of statements by President Trump himself, and by his reported confidant Edward Feulner, suggest that he’s leaning toward a harder line. Republicans in both the House and the Senate have also called for a policy that tightens sanctions and expands information operations.

The administration looks like it’s laying the diplomatic foundation to pressure Pyongyang. Secretary of State Tillerson has already been pushing China to use “all available tools” and its “unique leverage” to pressure North Korea to disarm, and quickly rejected China’s freeze proposal. (Let’s pray Nikki Haley is wrong about Kim Jong-un being irrational, although it’s hard for me to explain the K.L. attack as rational.)

There are early signs of financial diplomacy, too. The new Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, recently met with his South Korean counterpart to talk about how to implement sanctions against North Korea. The two governments, along with Japan, are already coordinating ways to combine their economic and financial leverage against North Korea. I’d have to think that the administration would have opposed the SWIFT ban of three North Korean banks if its policy was headed in a different direction.

This week’s actions by the Justice, Treasury, and Commerce departments against Chinese IT firm ZTE for exporting Commerce-controlled technology to Iran and North Korea suggest that China has lost its immunity from consequences for breaking our laws. Although it would be overstating matters to say that China was completely off-limits during the Obama administration, for Trump to go this big this soon sends a strong signal when Trump and Xi are still sniffing each other out. If I can offer the Chinese banking industry some advice that could save them billions of dollars, it would be to invest in Anti-Money Laundering compliance and Know-Your-Customer programs.

All of this would be the best possible start for getting the fundamental policy direction right. What remains to be seen is whether Trump will put sufficient resources, competent staff, and political will on this problem. It’s a policy that will require steadiness and patience against an enemy that’s good at breaking our attention and our coalitions with both bribery and extortion. And building pressure is never as hard as knowing how to use that pressure to achieve realistic outcomes. 

A programming note: This was supposed to be the short post that lasted half a commute while I turned back to writing about the U.N. Panel of Experts report. See how well that plan worked? Tomorrow, we return to our regularly scheduled programming, God willing. Please, Kim Jong-un, try not to do anything too stupid for two or three days so I can keep up, OK?

Update: So just around the time I posted this, the news of Park Geun-hye’s removal from office broke. I probably won’t post about that, because: (1) I’m not a Korean lawyer; (2) I haven’t read the decision; (3) consequently, I have no useful knowledge to contribute to your understanding of it; (4) I accepted this as the likely outcome months ago; (5) I want to use my limited time to write about other things where I have more value to add; and (6) my feelings on this topic are conflicted. If Park really did extort bribes — and I have to give the court the benefit of the doubt that she did — then she deserved to be removed from office. Belatedly, she ended up getting North Korea right, which makes it all the more disappointing that she dragged a sound policy down with her. The only thing I’m fairly certain of now is that the next South Korean president will have a worse North Korea policy than the last one, and if it’s Moon Jae-in, we may be headed for a crisis in the alliance. If Moon takes his North Korea policy where I think he wants to take it, the Trump administration may view that alliance as more of a liability — or a bargaining chip — than an asset. It’s never too early for buyer’s remorse.

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Malaysia’s lax enforcement of North Korea sanctions has finally come home

Over the weekend, Malaysian authorities painstakingly decontaminated a terminal of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport where North Korean agents — including a diplomatcarried out a lethal attack with the nerve agent VX, a substance so deadly that a tiny droplet can kill an adult. The authorities are clearly concerned that the use of a persistent chemical weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal will cause panic among Malaysian citizens and members of the traveling public, as well they should be. Pyongyang’s reckless act endangered thousands of innocent lives. It endangered every child who sat on the floor while her mother used the check-in machines. It endangered every baby who touched a contaminated surface and put her finger in her mouth, and every mother who used one of the sinks the attackers used to wash their hands. It endangered every worker who cleaned the restrooms or vacuumed the floors, every traveler who touched the handrails on the escalators going down to the taxi rank, every passenger who rode in one of those taxis after the attackers did, and every person who walked through that terminal and took her shoes off at her front doorstep.

The first object of Malaysians’ outrage is, and should be, the North Korean government. As of this hour, the North Korean embassy is still harboring two suspects, refusing to cooperate with Malaysian authorities, and spewing flagrant lies to deflect blame. Obviously, I can’t speak for the Malaysian government, but if I could, I’d be making plans to close the embassy, to expel everyone with diplomatic immunity, and arrest any suspect without it.

But if Pyongyang deserves the brunt of our outrage, a second object of outrage should be the Malaysian government itself, which had long been warned in U.N. reports that Pyongyang’s agents on its soil were violating U.N. sanctions and the laws of other nations, yet did little to curtail them. Report after report identified Malaysia as the home base of North Korean spies, smugglers, arms dealers, slave traders, money launderers, and procurers of tools to make missiles. In allowing this activity to go on for years, the Malaysian government not only allowed North Korea to endanger Malaysians, but to endanger the citizens of other countries — and indeed, the security of the entire world.

Just last week, for example, Reuters reported on the contents of a leaked excerpt of the 2017 report by the U.N. Panel of Experts overseeing compliance with U.N. sanctions against North Korea, including an embargo on the sale or purchase by North Korea or arms and related materiel. The report described the interdiction last year of a shipment of North Korean weapons in transit to Eritrea, including 45 boxes of battlefield radios manufactured by the Malaysia-based company Glocom. According to the report, Glocom is a front for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Korean Workers’ Party, an entity designated by the U.N. Security Council, and the agency suspected of carrying out the Kuala Lumpur airport attack. Glocom still operates through this website marketing its wares. It does not list Glocom’s corporate officers, so I’ll let the Malaysian authorities investigate whether there are any financial, logistical, material, or personnel links between Glocom and the attackers. Overall, that seems likely to be the case.

[Update]

Reuters has a must-read story on Glocom filled with details about how it masked its ownership and control behind layers of front companies and shell companies, and tied itself to Malaysian man with influence in the country’s ruling party. They even made this org chart:

It notes that on one occasion in 2014, a female RGB agent named Ryang Su-nyo was caught at the Kuala Lumpur airport terminal while attempting to smuggle $450,000 in cash through customs (note again the North Korean preference for U.S. dollars). Ryang said she was transporting the money for the North Korean embassy, so the authorities decided not to press charges and gave the cash back. Here’s a newer website for Glocom. This wasn’t like any of the ham-handed, rinky-dink North Korean front companies I’ve seen before. This was a slick, sophisticated, and well-capitalized operation that raised funds for an agency with a long history of terrorism. If any of the money ran through the U.S. financial system, which seems likely, it would be worth exploring a material support charge.

[End update]

Then, there is the case of a 2007 shipment of missile parts seized en route from North Korea to Syria. That shipment, which transited through Dalian, China and Port Kelang, Malaysia contained, among other items, “solid double-base propellant … usable for gas generators to power Scud missile turbopumps.” When the shipment was seized, the blocks of explosive propellant that had passed through those busy ports were removed “for safety reasons.” (2012 report, Para. 57.)

Malaysia has long been a hub and meeting venue for North Korean arms smuggling. A shipment of tank parts bound for the Republic of Congo, and which was seized in South Africa in 2010, was routed through Dalian, China and Port Kelang. (2010 report, Para. 63.) In June 2009, Japanese authorities arrested three individuals for attempting to illegally export a magnetometer to Myanmar through Malaysia, “allegedly under the direction of a company known to be associated with illicit procurement for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear and military programmes.” (2010 report, Para. 51.) In 2012, Japan notified the panel of 2008 and 2009 shipments through Malaysia of machinery useful for producing missile gyroscopes. (2012 report, Para. 91.)

Malaysians have seen the tragic results of anti-aircraft missiles falling into the wrong hands. In 2012, a British court convicted arms smuggler Michael Ranger of attempting to sell Azerbaijan “between 70 and 100 man-portable air defence systems”* from Hesong Trading Company, a subsidiary of the notorious Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, or KOMID, Pyongyang’s principal arms-dealing front company. Ranger “was in regular e-mail correspondence with” O Hak-Chol, a North Korean diplomat and Hesong representative whom Mr. Ranger met in a number of third countries, including Malaysia. (2013 report, Paras. 90-95 & FN.61.) As recently as 2015, KOMID representatives continued to transit through Malaysia. (2016 report, Para. 177.)

As of 2015, long after the Security Council designated North Korean shipper Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) for arms smuggling and required member states to close its offices and expel its representatives, OMM still maintained an office in Kuala Lumpur. (2015 report, Para. 128.) Until early 2015, a Malaysia-based North Korean agent named Pak In-su acted as an agent for the Mirae Shipping Company, a front for OMM.

Pak In-su’s primary employer was Malaysian Coal and Minerals Corporation (2015 report, Para. 143), a company that is almost certainly linked to Malaysia’s use of North Korean labor in its coal mines. What little we know of working conditions for North Korean expatriate laborers in Malaysia, and what we know of the conditions elsewhere, suggests that those conditions are tantamount to slavery. At least one North Korean miner in Malaysia was killed in an explosion in 2014. In the end, the regime in Pyongyang probably keeps most of the workers’ wages.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that 300 North Korean laborers are working in Malaysia. Partially as a result of such labor practices, Malaysia was recently downgraded to Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which imposes penalties on legitimate Malaysian businesses that export to the United States. It also subjects Malaysia to sanctions risks, and the entire world to security risks. In a press release announcing its designation of the Mansudae Overseas Project group, for exportation of workers in violation of Executive Order 13722, the Treasury Department listed Malaysia as a market for Mansudae’s services, and said, “Some of the revenue generated by overseas laborers is used by the Munitions Industry Department, which was designated by the Department of State in August 2010 pursuant to E.O. 13382 for its support to North Korea’s WMD program.”

The procurement network that obtained parts and materials for North Korea’s missile programs has long had a strong presence in Malaysia. This presence has included entities that were designated by the U.N., including OMM, Mirae Shipping, and KOMID, and a U.N.-designated North Korean arms exporter known as Green Pine. In 2006 and 2010, the Korea Chonbok Trading Corporation, a front for Green Pine, purchased pressure transmitters from an unnamed European country for its long-range Unha-3 rockets. A payment invoice for the transactions lists one Ryong Jong-chol, a North Korean based in Malaysia, as the purchaser. (2015 report, Para. 195.) The payments, denominated in Euro, were routed through a Malaysian bank. According to the Panel, “Ryom was acting as the representative of Bank of East Land.” East Land was later designated by the U.S. Treasury Department (in 2011), the U.N. (in 2013), and the European Union (in 2013). (2016 report, Para. 186.) As of February 2016, the Malaysian government had still not responded to the Panel’s request for information about the transactions.

Malaysia’s tolerance of North Korea’s deceptive financial practices endangers Malaysian banks’ access to the global financial system. Malaysia is one of the few nations that still deals with North Korean banks, despite U.N. resolutions requiring “enhanced monitoring” of its financial activities (Para. 11), and warnings by the Financial Action Task Force to take “countermeasures” against North Korean money laundering and proliferation financing. In 2009, U.S. sanctions coordinator Philip Goldberg and Treasury official Daniel Glaser traveled to Malaysia and met with senior officials of the Malaysian government and central bank, regarding the implementation of U.N. financial sanctions under then-new UNSCR 1874. That visit followed reports that Malaysian banks were involved in transferring funds between North Korea and Burma for weapons-related transactions, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. In 2013, Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen visited Malaysia to discuss its compliance with U.N. financial sanctions.

At least one major Malaysian Bank, Malayan Banking Berhad, was reported by the Panel in 2010 to maintain a correspondent relationship with, or to issue letters of credit for, North Korean banks. (2010 report, page 68.) It’s important to note, however, that the U.N. Security Council did not prohibit correspondent relationships with North Korean banks until 90 days after the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, on March 3, 2016. The Panel’s 2013 report listed the International Consortium Bank, a/k/a Hi-Fund International Bank as having been partially capitalized by and founded by the Malaysia Korea Partners Group of Companies (2013 report, page 132.)

ICB is a subsidiary of a North Korean front company called the MKP Group, which has the world’s most hilariously awful website, appears to have some ties to the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, also operates in Zambia, and really merits a post of its own one day. The existence of these banking relationships shows the importance of Malaysia as a secondary hub in Pyongyang’s financial network, which is often used for illicit purposes.

A recent investigation by Bangladeshi authorities into the smuggling of undeclared luxury goods, including LED televisions, tobacco, Rolls-Royces, and BMWs, has reportedly implicated the North Korean embassy in Malaysia. Under UNSCR 1718, North Korea is prohibited from importing luxury goods. In this case, the end destination for the goods isn’t clear, but whoever is behind the shipments conspired to evade Bangladesh import duties.

For the most part, the substantial network of North Korean arms smugglers, spies, and money launderers who operate in Malaysia merely endanger the citizens of other nations — most obviously in South Korea, but also in Syria and the Republic of Congo. In most cases, however, it’s impossible to predict who and where the next victims of North Korea’s activities will be. North Korea sells the world’s most dangerous weapons and technology to any buyer without regard to end users, victims, or consequences. As the VX attack at Kuala Lumpur illustrates, allowing North Korean agents to operate on one’s soil eventually endangers the host country’s citizens and interests, too. The question that the Malaysian people and government should be asking is whether the benefits of their financial and commercial ties to North Korea are really worth those risks.

~   ~   ~

* North Korea has been caught selling MANPADS before. One shipment of them was seized in Bangkok in 2010, on its way to Iran’s terrorist clients. In 2010, Yi Qing Chen was convicted of attempting to smuggle Chinese-made QM-2 man-portable surface-to-air missiles into the United States in 2005.  In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The QM-2 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Igla-1, or SAM-18.

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Some on-point congressional testimony on sanctions as part of a broader N. Korea policy

Reuters reports that, following North Korea’s weekend missile test, the Trump administration “will consider a full range of options in a response to Pyongyang’s missile test” that are “calibrated to show U.S. resolve while avoiding escalation.”

Those options will include increasing “pressure on China to rein in North Korea,” “new U.S. sanctions to tighten financial controls, an increase in U.S. naval and air assets in and around the Korean peninsula and accelerated installation of new missile defense systems in South Korea.” The U.S., South Korea, and Japan are also bringing the launch up at the U.N. Security Council, although it’s not yet clear if they will ask for a new resolution, a toothless presidential statement, or a new round of designations (which is likely the best we can get).

What we’re about to confront is the question of whether we can coexist with a nuclear North Korea — or, more precisely, whether a nuclear North Korea will coexist with us.

This is where its nuclear weapons program fits into North Korea’s designs. In Pyongyang’s thinking, the indispensable instrument for achieving the DPRK’s grand historical ambitions must be a supremely powerful military: more specifically, one possessed of a nuclear arsenal that can imperil and break the foreign enemies who protect and prop up what Pyongyang regards as the vile puppet state in the South, so that the DPRK may consummate its unconditional unification and give birth to its envisioned earthly Korean-race utopia. [Nicholas Eberstadt, Testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 31, 2017]

I might add: Pyongyang will soon pose a direct nuclear threat to the United States. It launched cyberterrorist attacks against us to censor our own freedom of speech. It built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS. It sells surface-to-air missiles to terrorists. It’s cooperating with Iran on missiles. It will sell any weapon to any bidder with the asking price. It has long demonstrated its utter disregard for human life. The answer, emphatically, is “no.”

~   ~   ~

There are still plenty of items left on this list of options I posted last year, although I take some satisfaction from that fact that many of them have since been done, and we’re now waiting to see their impact. China’s latest sanctions violations on coal imports and cargo inspections are also openings for the new administration to offer strong responses.

Recent congressional hearings have also offered valuable guidance about what that policy should be. Once again, I’ll point to the testimony of former State and Treasury Department official Anthony Ruggiero, which should be required reading for anyone looking to make sanctions work. Ruggiero argues that we have to step up our investigation and enforcement efforts, target Kim Jong-un’s finances more strategically, and be willing to break some china along the way. Begging Beijing to help us is a fool’s errand (it won’t, at least not voluntarily). Our targets should instead be the Chinese banks and businesses that prop up Pyongyang, and that also need access to our financial system.

Also on the topic of sanctions, Victor Cha made this important argument:

The combination of the Treasury Department’s designation of the DPRK as a jurisdiction of “primary money laundering concern” under Section 311 of the PATRIOT ACT, the North Korean Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, and the sectoral measures sanctions under UNSCRs 2270 and 2321 comprise a new level of sanctioning. There will be many who criticize sanctions as being ineffective. Sanctions are the most maligned instrument in the diplomatic toolbox. The reality is that we don’t know whether sanctions work until they do. That is, only after the North returns to the negotiating table, or falters under pressure, or gives up its weapons, the policy community will point to sanctions and say they work. Until then, folks will say sanctions don’t work.

So we need to keep the pressure on and expand the scope. Sanctioning of North Korea’s slave labor exports and third-party entities that have willful involvement in DPRK insurance fraud schemes should be considered. Secondary sanctioning (discussed below) should also be considered. We also need to work harder on full enforcement of unilateral and multilateral sanctions. Sanctions enforcement should be pursued in conjunction with our allies and regional stakeholders as well as through international mechanisms. [Victor Cha]

Ironically, those who supported the economic subsidies (Kaesong, foreign tourism) that have undermined sanctions are the loudest voices claiming that sanctions have failed, or repeating the factually and legally false claim that years of strong sanctions haven’t worked. If you want to know why sanctions haven’t worked yet, it’s because (1) they were weak, and (2) until at least a year ago, economic subsidies from South Korea and China canceled out whatever limited effects they’ve had.

Then, what strategy do sanctions serve? Our goal can’t just be to force Pyongyang to come back to talks or promise us another unverifiable freeze.

If there is any chance at all that the North would ever entertain the idea of giving up its nuclear program, it would be only because the new administration has made it very clear that the Kim regime is facing a stark choice between keeping the nuclear arsenal and regime survival. [Sue Mi Terry, testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, February 7, 2017]

As I explained here, sanctions can force Kim Jong-un to make difficult choices about allocating limited resources, catalyze corruption and indiscipline within the security forces, instigate inter-factional knife fights as resources dwindle, and convince him that he’s losing control. Anyone who wants to understand how sanctions fit into a broader policy, and what that policy should be, will not see it explained better anywhere than Terry did in her written testimony last week. She explains how sanctions further our medium- and long-term political objectives by weakening the regime’s domestic political support in tandem with information operations that pave the way for change and, ultimately, reunification without war. And as Terry explains, sanctions aren’t the only element of presenting that stark choice (she also argues for subversive information operations, strong alliances, and diplomacy).

Terry is probably right when she argues that while we can’t close off Pyongyang’s option to resolve the crisis diplomatically, “[i]n the final analysis, there is only one way that the threat from North Korean will truly come to an end: the current regime itself must come to an end.”

Another challenge for the United States is how to induce an internal debate among North Korean elites about the costs of a nuclear North Korea. Sanctions alone are likely to convince North Korean elites that their only options are to unite in support of Kim Jong Un and his nuclear policy or to risk regime failure and international retribution-that is to “hang together or hang separately.” [Scott Snyder, Testimony Before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, January 31, 2017]

Unless, of course, we offer clemency to those who come forward and defect with valuable intelligence, or who refuse orders to fire on civilians, whether in North or South Korea.

For this reason, it is all the more important for senior officials around Kim Jong Un to know that there is an alternative pathway that can safeguard their survival. Given the absence of overt internal dissent within North Korea today, this strategy may also fail. But media reports of accounts by Thae Yong-ho, a high-ranking North Korean official who recently defected, suggest that dissenting opinions and discontent do exist among high-level North Korean elites. The United States and its allies should seek to communicate a clear message and guarantee to those around Kim Jong-un that there is a viable alternative path forward for North Korea if it abandons nuclear weapons and conforms to international norms, including on human rights.

Above all, however, any strategy that includes (or even tolerates) sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time will fail under the weight of its own incoherence. Twenty years of engagement have made zero measurable progress toward the reform and peace that its backers promised us. On the contrary, those subsidies helped Pyongyang to nuke up, break sanctions, seal its borders, and consolidate a third generation of tyranny. No coherent policy has room for both sanctions and subsidies. It must be one or the other.

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China’s latest cheating on North Korea sanctions is a test for Trump

Like most people, I would prefer that the new President of the United States refrained from conducting diplomacy by Twitter. Without endorsing the medium, I gave a qualified endorsement to the message President Trump sent to China when he accused it of not helping to reign in His Porcine Majesty. Trump was right about this, of course. Over the last several years, the U.N., no less, has published a wealth of evidence that China has (almost certainly willfully) violated the North Korea sanctions it voted for in the Security Council. Here’s the latest example:

26. Decides … that the DPRK shall not supply, sell or transfer, directly or indirectly, from its territory or by its nationals or using its flag vessels or aircraft, coal, iron, and iron ore, and that all States shall prohibit the procurement of such material from the DPRK by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of the DPRK, and decides that this provision shall not apply with respect to:
. . . .
(b) Total exports to all Member States of coal originating in the DPRK that in the aggregate do not exceed $53,495,894 or 1,000,866 metric tons, whichever is lower, between the date of adoption of this resolution and 31 December 2016 …. [UNSCR 2321, Nov. 30, 2016]

Just eight weeks later, the inestimable Leo Byrne cites customs data showing that China imported twice the amount of North Korean coal permitted for the remainder of 2016:

Customs figures show Chinese traders imported over 2 million tonnes of coal in December, up from 1.9 million the previous month. North Korea’s received $168 million for the commodity, a figure over three times that outlined in Resolution 2321. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

So yesterday, a reporter asked the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s mouthpiece to explain herself.

Q: [I]t is stipulated in Resolution 2321 of the UN Security Council that the imported coal from the DPRK by 31 December 2016 should not exceed one million ton or 54 million US dollars. Statistics recently released by China’s customs shows that China’s volume of coal imports from the DPRK in December 2016 exceeded the cap. What is China’s comment on that?

A: On your first question, it is a shared obligation of UN member states to implement resolutions of the Security Council. According to Chinese laws, it is required for the Chinese government to issue a statement for actions taken to implement Resolution 2321. This is a regular practice of the Chinese side. The statement by relevant Chinese ministries is one such step. The list of dual use items and technologies annexed to the statement is a verbatim quote of the list in the resolution.

The mouthpiece is referencing this belatedly updated list of things Chinese companies aren’t supposed to export to North Korea, unofficially translated here, at NK Pro.

On your second question, let me point out that Resolution 2321 should be implemented in a comprehensive and balanced manner. And it is not only China who should implement the resolution. The resolution called for solving the issue of the Korean peninsula through political and diplomatic means. I would like to ask, what efforts have been made by other relevant countries? [ChiCom Foreign Ministry]

The mouthpiece implies that China’s compliance with the sanctions resolutions is conditioned on “other relevant countries … solving the issue of the Korean peninsula through political and diplomatic means.” But the resolutions impose no such obligation or condition. The argument is spurious. It’s also circular, because North Korea’s first demand in negotiations will surely be that we stop enforcing sanctions, meaning that China’s de facto position is that it won’t comply with sanctions unless we lift sanctions.

Specifically on your question, competent authorities of China issued a statement on 9 December, immediately after the adoption of Resolution 2321 by the Security Council, ordering the suspension of coal imports from the DPRK until 31 December 2016. The Chinese side have taken measures in line with the requirements of the resolution and fulfilled its own international obligation. [ChiCom Foreign Ministry]

China’s obligation under Resolution 2321 does not end with issuing a statement and then forgetting about it. Surely China, which can have Jingjing and Chacha at a dissident’s doorstep 20 minutes after an offending Weibo post, can’t expect us to believe that it can’t enforce its laws. Surely China, whose customs authorities know how to detect and hold up shipments when doing so serves Beijing’s interest in bullying its neighbors, can’t expect us to believe that it can’t enforce its customs laws. When confronted with evidence of a violation of a U.N. sanctions resolution China voted for eight weeks ago in a clear, blue question, China’s mouthpiece gave a vague, red answer. That answer shows contempt for the United Nations and the United States.

For eight years, Barack Obama mostly kowtowed in the face of a whole course of aggressive Chinese conduct. Obama’s passivity pleased many “China hands” in academia, but worried our military, shook the confidence of our allies, and yielded some grave setbacks for peace and security in an economically vital part of the world. The most menacing of these is Kim Jong-un’s alarming progress toward nuclear breakout. Beijing acts as if it does not understand the risk of war if sanctions fail, or the risk that this war would involve China. Either that, or China sees a nuclear North Korea as useful for China’s plans to dominate northeast Asia.

For all that was wrong with the Obama administration’s North Korea policy, the former President did lay down a marker in blocking the assets of the North Korean military-controlled companies responsible for most of the coal exports. To the extent that Chinese importers purchased from those designated suppliers or failed to limit North Korean coal imports as required under U.N. resolutions and Chinese law, the U.S. has the authority to freeze the Chinese importers’ dollars. Alternatively, it could invoke section 205 of the NKSPEA to increase the inspection of cargo arriving at U.S. ports from Chinese ports that facilitated violations of the coal cap. This is a test for the new Trump administration. We’re about to find out if Donald Trump’s tough talk is more than just talk.

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Yonhap: U.S., ROK & Japan to impose coordinated sanctions independently of U.N.

With reaction to UNSCR 2321 ranging from the skeptical to the unfavorable, U.S. and South Korean diplomats have been practicing their skills at porcine cosmetology this week. But if the generals in Pyongyang are already quaffing Hennessey to celebrate the latest advance for the byungjin policy, that may be premature. The Security Council may not have the last word on North Korea’s September 9th nuke test after all:

South Korea, the United States and Japan are preparing to announce their own sanctions on North Korea at the same time in a joint action to maximize their impact to the communist country, Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said Thursday.

“Basically, (the three countries’ independent sanctions) will be announced concurrently or at a very similar time,” Yun told Yonhap News Agency, referring to the nations’ follow-up measures to the United Nations Security Council’s adoption of Resolution 2321. South Korea is set to unveil its own set of new sanctions on Friday. [Yonhap]

My two greatest concerns with 2321 are, first, that the surprisingly high coal export limits are a license to cheat that may actually raise the amount of coal Pyongyang can export, and second, that within the negotiations with China over the resolution was a sub rosa agreement by the U.S. to abstain from using the power of the dollar against Chinese banks and businesses that are propping up His Supreme Corpulency. This report doesn’t address the first concern, but it may palliate the second.

Obviously, how much the new bilateral sanctions would palliate my concern depends on what the sanctions are, and Yun didn’t say much about that, except that “[b]ilateral sanctions prepared by the U.S. side may be strong enough to hurt North Korea more than the recent UNSC resolution.” This article, however, gives some vague hints at the South Korean actions. Yun also didn’t say exactly when the new sanctions would be announced, because the different countries have different “internal procedures.”

I can certainly imagine what kind of sanction would have that sort of effect. So can the Obama administration, and so can the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, whose most vocal members and committee chairs are going to be pushing for just that for at least two more years. That the allies appear to be practicing Progressive Diplomacy is also excellent news.

I may not miss Park Geun-hye as much as I’d miss Yun Byung-se. I certainly hope he stays on in the banana republic that South Korea has recently become, but then, who am I? I’m writing this from Washington, D.C.

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