How to close the livelihood loophole in N. Korea sanctions, even without China’s help

It has now been more than a month since North Korea carried out its fifth nuclear test, and the U.N. Security Council has yet to respond by approving a new resolution to strengthen its sanctions. After North Korea’s previous nuclear tests, it took between four and six weeks to overcome Chinese and Russian objections, and the world is growing impatient.

As noted yesterday, the U.S. is correctly focused on cutting off North Korea’s sources of hard currency. Judging by the statements of U.S. officials, one key U.S. demand going into the negotiations is likely the curtailment of, or a ban on, North Korean labor exports, of which China and Russia are major consumers. Another measure under discussion is a ban on tourist travel, which would be useful to making any travel ban more than an inconvenience for Pyongyang, because most of North Korea’s tourists are Chinese, and presumably spend Renminbi during their travels.

A third measure frequently mentioned in the press over the last several weeks is closing the “livelihood” loophole in paragraph 29(b) of UNSCR 2270 — the provision that bans North Korea from selling coal, iron, and iron ore, but carves out an exception for sales exclusively for “livelihood” purposes. In practice, the exception has swallowed the rule. North Korea’s coal sales to China dipped shortly after the Security Council adopted UNSCR 2270, but have since risen to pre-sanctions levels. Typically enough, China is balking at closing this loophole.

“We cannot really affect the well-being and the humanitarian needs of the people and also we need to urge various parties to reduce tensions,” Chinese U.N. Ambassador Liu Jieyi told Reuters on Saturday of discussions with the United States on “a draft resolution with a wider scope of measures.” [….]

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said on Sunday that some of the exemptions included in the March resolution – out of concern for the welfare of North Koreans – appeared to have been exploited.

“In the negotiation that we are currently in the midst on in the new resolution, we are hoping to address some of the shortcomings that we have seen,” Power told reporters during a visit to Seoul. [Reuters]

China claims that it is resisting tougher sanctions because it’s worried about hurting the North Korean people, an uncharacteristically humanitarian argument coming from the same government that regularly sends North Korean refugees back to Kim Jong-un’s gulag by the dozen, that ignored the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report, and that has consistently opposed U.N. action on Kim Jong-un’s crimes against humanity.

But if the U.S. wants to close the livelihood loophole and China wants to avoid starving the people, the obvious compromise is to force Chinese buyers to pay for North Korean coal in food, medicine, and other strictly humanitarian supplies. Sanctions need humanitarian safety valves to allow U.N. member states to mitigate possible negative effects on the North Korean people. If that’s what China really wants, that’s how China can use “livelihood” coal as that humanitarian safety valve. To prevent cheating, the in-kind “payments” could be monitored by U.N. humanitarian agencies at Chinese ports and customs posts. Surely if North Korea imports enough food, much of this will flood into North Korea’s markets and drive down prices. To further amplify this effect, China should agree to ban North Korea from exporting food — mostly to China — for cash.

The more plausible explanation is that China is more interested in protecting Kim Jong-un and profiting from its access to his resources than it is in enforcing sanctions. China’s violations of the sanctions have been too blatant to be anything but willful. Although the conventional wisdom is that China is simply afraid of a potential regime collapse in Pyongyang, that view doesn’t explain China’s long history of selling proliferation-sensitive materials to North Korea, including a Chinese state-owned company’s sale of missile carriers to North Korea. This evidence suggests a more malicious explanation. It’s almost as if China wants North Korea to be a greater threat to the U.S. and South Korea.


Of course, all of the aforementioned measures are effectively trade sanctions — the kind of sanctions that legions of peace studies grad students and other unschooled critics are really talking about when they hector us about how long sanctions take to work. We may simply be out of time for such gradualist strategies now. The South Koreans, the Council on Foreign Relations, and even some Chinese speak openly of preemptive military strikes today. South Koreans are justifiably worried about falling under the shadow of nuclear blackmail. The sense of urgency in Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington has never been greater. That sense of urgency has not yet arrived in Beijing.

Without question, trade between China and North Korea has risen recently, diluting the effect of U.N. sanctions, and that is a problem. But those who are legitimately concerned about this rising trade — including coal and iron ore trade — between China and North Korea would do well to remember that all of the money North Korea earns from its sales of everything from coal to seafood to missile parts goes into bank accounts, mostly in China, and we probably know where many of those accounts are. If the U.S. and its allies want to adopt a strategy that will work quickly enough to create a sense of urgency in both Beijing and Pyongyang, the Obama administration should do what Congress has demanded and what the law requires — freeze North Korea’s slush funds and penalize the Chinese banks that keep them on deposit.

(My other suggestions for possible new measures can be found at the bottom of this post by Stephan Haggard; chief among the enforcement gaps is a need to make member states, banks, and businesses report North Korean beneficial ownership interests, to help identify North Korean property and bank accounts.)

Yes, it would be lovely if China suddenly became convinced that all of this represents a threat to its interests and its very security. Certainly, some ordinary Chinese citizens can see that (see, for example, this Chinese-language Google search result for “third fatty,” forwarded by a journalist reader). I’m skeptical that the Chinese government will ever really crack down on North Korea for more than a few months, especially as America is about to descend into the periodic chaos of a political transition.

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Until reporters and op-ed writers stop misleading their readers with the myth that our sanctions against North Korea have been strong, I’m going to keep linking to my legal arguments that in fact, our North Korea sanctions were comparatively weak until February and March of this year, and that even these authorities have yet to be fully implemented. On paper, however, we finally have enough authorities to threaten the survival of the regime in Pyongyang and force it to choose between its nukes and its survival, if we apply our diplomatic and legal power to forcing other U.N. member states to comply.

Perhaps, then, we’ve reached the point where we’d be better off walking away from deadlocked negotiations with China and Russia and channeling our diplomatic power toward progressive diplomacy. Rather than continue to pound our heads against the Great Wall, perhaps the U.S. and South Korea should start building an ad hoc coalition aimed at the strict enforcement of existing resolutions. Existing U.S. law and U.N. resolutions may provide enough of a legal foundation that we’re better off aggressively enforcing the sanctions we already have than bargain away enforcement to get new ones. After all, the EU didn’t need the U.N.’s approval to designate the Korea National Insurance Corporation, and the U.S. didn’t need the U.N.’s approval to designate the Foreign Trade Bank. By coordinating their designations and secondary trade boycotts in concert with a collection of like-minded states with strong buying power and convertible currencies, a new coalition could put strong pressure on North Korea and its Chinese enablers. Potential partners for that coalition include (of course) South Korean and Japan, the EU, the U.K., Switzerland, Canada, Australia, and Singapore.

If, on the other hand, we just want to close the “livelihood loophole,” why not designate the abusers of that provision under section 104(a) of the NKSPEA? Recently, anonymously sourced news stories have identified the Wanxiang Group as the “largest importer of a wide variety of North Korean minerals,” including “coal, iron ore, gold and rare earths.” Interestingly, a Wanxiang Group affiliate holds “more than 60 properties” in the United States. If further investigation confirms these reports, the Wanxiang Group’s assets in the United States, and its heavy investment in a North Korean industry subject to Treasury Department sectoral sanctions, could make it the perfect target.

Of course, our relations with China would suffer in the short term, but it’s not as if our sotto voce China policy has contained China’s hegemony, protected the security of our allies, or paid obvious dividends in bilateral relations. Our relations with China will probably have to get worse before they can get better. For our relations to get better, China will need a hard shove for its policies to reflect a fair acknowledgment of U.S., South Korean, Japanese, and global security interests.

None of which means we can’t go back to the U.N. Security Council at some point to get a stronger resolution; it just means that we shouldn’t let China prevent us from designating targets that are violating the existing resolutions. If the Chinese government isn’t responsive to our pleas, we already know that the Chinese banking industry is responsive to our threats. If North Korea lost its access to the banking system, its insurance, banking, and shipping industries, and its national airline, it would be reduced to operating a country of 23 million people by trying to smuggle briefcases full of bulk cash around the world on other peoples’ airlines and ships. It’s hard for me to believe North Korea could last long that way. That’s why, as nice as it would be to have Beijing’s cooperation, it would be far better to focus our diplomatic energies elsewhere. In the meantime, the Obama administration should enforce the law the President signed.

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China suppresses “viral” images of anti-Kim Jong-un protest in Yangzhou

A favorite long-time reader and volunteer copy-editor forwards this fascinating story, via the UPI’s Elizabeth Shim.

An anti-Kim Jong Un rally was held in a Chinese city but photographs of the protest were promptly deleted by Chinese government censors, according to the Chinese-language press.

Protesters in the eastern Chinese city of Yangzhou gathered to express their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear tests and to condemn the North Korean leader.

The photos then went viral on Chinese social media, Hong Kong’s Apple Daily and New York-based Duowei News reported.

Yangzhou is the hometown of Jiang Zemin, who served as president from 1993 to 2003.

In images that were captured prior to their removal from the Internet, protesters were seen holding red banners that read, “Let’s overthrow the Kim dynasty, and hang Kim Jong Un by the neck in an execution.” [UPI]

What’s both frustrating and somewhat understandable is that the report tells us nothing about the sentiments behind the protest. Is His Corpulency perceived as endangering China’s security or the health of its people? As bringing the risk of war to China’s doorstep? As hurting China’s reputation? Or is it that Kim is simply perceived as an ungrateful vassal?

When images of the signs (see UPI’s report) “circulated rapidly across” Weibo and Weixin, Jing-Jing and Cha-Cha sprang into action to delete them.

But while the images were still available online, “Chinese mainland netizens showed strong interest in the anti-North Korea rallies that were taking place in Jiang Zemin’s hometown of Yangzhou,” according to Apple Daily.

U.S.-based Chinese-language newspaper Duowei News stated that the removal of the pictures indicates there is a “large gap in perspective on the demonstrations between the Chinese government and the people.”

There may be an angle for us to exploit here, if we knew more about the protestors’ sentiments. At some point, intense public antipathy might be enough to effect modest shifts in China’s policies, although I emphasize “modest.”

Chinese commenters have previously disparaged the North Korean ruler, calling him a derogatory word that translates into “the third fat member of the Kim family,” while condemning North Korea provocations.

That’s consistent with reports I’ve heard more than once from a well-respected Korea analyst, who would probably prefer not to be named. I’ve found nothing else online to confirm or further explain this report. Any Chinese-speakers who can help with that will earn my gratitude.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Clinton’s North Korea epiphany: We have always been at (cold) war with China

So desperate are we to avoid a Cold War (or worse) in the Pacific that throughout the Obama years, we’ve pretended that China hasn’t been waging one unilaterally the whole time. Meanwhile, China has seized the South China Sea, bullied our allies with spurious territorial claims, whipped up anti-American rhetoric to persecute human rights activists, and effectively quit enforcing sanctions against North Korea despite signing on for a nominally tough new resolution in March.

Evidence, you ask? Start with this new Australian report showing that China isn’t enforcing the U.N.’s new cargo inspection requirements at all. China still hasn’t stopped buying minerals like gold and titanium, which is isn’t supposed to buy in any quantity. Coal and iron imports, which are supposed to be limited to “livelihood” purposes, fell sharply in the first quarter of this year, only to rise again in the second. Chinese online vendors have even been selling North Korean coal. China continues to sell kerosene (read: jet fuel) in violation of a U.N. ban. Sanctioned North Korean ships have been seen leaving port. One, the Victory 2, has made regular calls in Chinese ports. Others have been seen hovering just off the Chinese coast. A China-based company, Blue Ship Management, continues to operate two sanctioned North Korean ships. More than 800 agents of North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau, which was designated in UNSCR 2270, continue to operate on Chinese soil, mostly hunting for defectors and policing overseas workers. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth.

These are the wages of our weakness toward North Korea and China. The new realization that North Korea could be just two years away from having a second-strike capability to hit our West Coast with nuclear weapons has raised the danger of nuclear war to their highest level since 1962, as I predicted it would a year ago. Unfortunately, the President has been poorly served by his National Security Staff and State Department, which have counseled him to hold back on holding China accountable for enabling the steady rise of this threat. China’s friends in Washington, and others who should know better but don’t, are fond of saying there’s nothing we can do about this. But we know what scares and moves China — secondary sanctions. Congress gave the President the authority (and a mandate) to impose them because China’s violations of sanctions against North Korea are nothing new. They have been so longstanding and so flagrant as to eliminate any other possibility but a deliberate, willful policy.

Even before the last nuclear test, there was a growing sense that President Obama had failed to hold North Korea’s Chinese enablers to account for those violations, despite having so recently signed a new legal mandate to do so. Even before that test, President Obama had said he would seek to toughen sanctions in response to North Korean missile test, and revealed his irritation with China after its rude treatment of him, and after getting an earful of its unreasonable objections to THAAD:

“China continues to object to the THAAD deployment in the Republic of Korea, one of our treaty allies. And what I’ve said to President Xi directly is that we cannot have a situation where we’re unable to defend either ourselves or our treaty allies against increasingly provocative behavior and escalating capabilities by the North Koreans,” Obama said at a news conference in Laos after the East Asia Summit.

“And I indicated to him that if the THAAD bothered him, particularly since it has no purpose other than defensive and does not change the strategic balance between the United States and China, that they need to work with us more effectively to change Pyongyang’s behavior,” he said, according to a White House transcript. [Yonhap]

And even before that test, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee had called on the President to enforce the North Korea sanctions law he has signed just seven months ago, including by imposing secondary sanctions on Chinese entities. Similar reactions came from Paul Ryan and Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

China has to understand that we will sanction those banks again, those Chinese banks that are transferring the hard currency…We need to use these powers that now the administration has under the bill that I authored – that’s been signed into law by the President – to tell China, ‘No, there will be secondary sanctions on any economic activity you are engaged in with North Korea.’ Because our goal right now is to shut [North Korea’s] economy down so they cannot continue to expand this nuclear weapons program.” [CNN]

HFAC’s Asia Subcommittee has already scheduled a hearing for Wednesday afternoon. Even before the hearing was announced, I predicted that it would be contentious — this is an election-year embarrassment the administration and Hillary Clinton don’t need. Now, freshly humiliated by North Korea’s latest nuclear test, the administration is suggesting that it’s finally ready to seek new U.N. sanctions, possibly to close existing loopholes (probably the “livelihood” exception to the coal and iron ore import ban) and ban fuel exports to North Korea. The Washington Post reports that the U.S. and South Korea may also push to ban North Korean labor exports, which will hurt North Korea’s ability to launder money by giving it less “legitimate” income for co-mingling and hiding illicit income. More importantly, the administration is saying that it’s finally ready to follow the law and enforce the sanctions that already exist.

“We will be working very closely in the Security Council and beyond to come up with the strongest possible measure against North Korea’s latest actions,” said U.S. envoy Sung Kim on Sunday.

“In addition to action in the Security Council, both the U.S. and Japan, together with the Republic of Korea, will be looking at unilateral measures, as well as bilateral measures, as well as possible trilateral cooperation,” he said, referring to South Korea by its official name. [Reuters]

So much for the idea that this time is different — that China had finally lost patience with North Korea. In an epiphany that I thought would never come to Washington, Hillary Clinton (of all people) has articulated why — China has been using North Korea as a “useful card” to divide U.S. forces in Asia and the Pacific (left unsaid: while China seizes the South China Sea and surrounds Taiwan).

“Up until relatively recently, I think (China was) under the impression that they could control their neighbor and they didn’t want to crack down because they saw it as a useful card to play,” Clinton said.

“If (North Korean leader Kim Jong-un) gets a little crazy, maybe the South Koreans will move toward (China) a little bit; he gets a little crazier, maybe they can make some deals with the Japanese about things they want. It was a strategic calculation,” she said. [Yonhap]

Separately, Clinton called the North Korean nuclear and missile programs “a direct threat to the United States” that we “cannot and will never accept,” which is welcome news at a time when some people are seriously suggesting that we can and must.

Clinton, a former secretary of state, also said that she supports President Barack Obama’s calls for strengthening the existing sanctions and impose additional measures.

“At the same time, we must strengthen defense cooperation with our allies in the region; South Korea and Japan are critical to our missile defense system, which will protect us against a North Korean missile,” she said.

“China plays a critical role, too, and must meaningfully increase pressure on North Korea — and we must make sure they do,” she said.  [Yonhap]

Clinton is right, of course, as is her rival in this election.

“North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, the fourth since Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, is yet one more example of Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic failures as secretary of state,” Trump communications aide Jason Miller said in a statement.

“Clinton promised to work to end North Korea’s nuclear program as secretary of state, yet the program has only grown in strength and sophistication,” he said. [Yonhap]

Park Geun-hye has called on China to enforce sanctions as it had agreed, a brave thing considering that China has increasingly tried to bully South Korea with its considerable economic leverage. No doubt, Park knows what’s at stake. There is already speculation about a sixth nuclear test. If the U.S. and South Korea uncover and freeze the money that keeps Kim Jong-un in power, victory and reunification could be within sight. A slow defeat of extortion and enslavement is in sight, too. If these are our choices, better a banking crisis in China than a war in Korea.

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Wall Street Journal calls on Obama administration to hit N. Korea with secondary sanctions

It’s always rewarding to know that someone is reading my screeds:

The promise of secondary sanctions is that they can force foreign banks, trading companies and ports to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business in dollars, which usually is an easy call. That’s what happened a decade ago when the U.S. blacklisted Macao-based Banco Delta Asia and spurred a cascade of other Chinese banks to drop their North Korean clients lest they lose access to the U.S. financial system.

But this only works if the U.S. exercises its power and blacklists offending institutions, as Congress required in February’s North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. The Obama Administration hasn’t done so even once.

As sanctions expert Joshua Stanton has noted on his One Free Korea blog, this isn’t for lack of targets. U.S. and South Korean intelligence have long tracked Pyongyang’s overseas slush funds, an effort surely boosted by high-level defections from Kim’s court. [Wall Street Journal, Review & Outlook]


A U.N. report in February named dozens of Chinese firms as fronts or partners of blacklisted North Korean entities. It also detailed how the Bank of China allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.

This is going to help put some steel behind Congress’s oversight of the administration’s enforcement of North Korea sanctions at a very important time — just as China concludes that it can get away with business and usual, and just as everyone’s attention is distracted by our ridiculous dumpster fire election. Better yet, it puts political pressure on President Obama just as he leaves for his final meeting with Xi Jinping.

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China’s next maritime conflict could be with North Korea

This week, the eyes of the world are on arbitrators’ rejection of China’s made-up claims to the South China Sea. Further north, however, Pyongyang’s lease of fishing rights to Beijing threatens to instigate violent brawls between North Korean and Chinese fishermen.

Earlier this year, China stopped accepting imports of North Korean seafood. The reasons for this still aren’t clear, but one possibility arises from a report that much of North Korea’s fishing fleet is controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which is designated under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270. That designation requires China to prohibit all transactions with any person or entity “owned or controlled” by the RGB. (China continues to allow RGB agents to operate on its territory, catching defectors and keeping overseas workers in line, so its enforcement of this provision isn’t wholly rigorous.)

For a while, this meant that North Koreans found previously scarce seafood dumped in the markets at a steep discount. Later, however, Pyongyang began keeping its smaller fishing boats in port. This was a jarring change from the recent stories of North Korean “ghost ships” washing up on the Japanese coast with dead bodies aboard.

As with so much of what goes on in North Korea, we can only speculate about why this happened. It’s possible that the fishermen had attempted to defect, but because there were no women or children among the dead, it seems more likely that the regime had set unreasonable quotas for the fishermen, who then sailed beyond the range of their fuel supply (historically limited as an anti-defection precaution) in a vain attempt to meet those quotas.

Radio Free Asia reported that the subsequent decision to keep the boats in port was another precaution against defections. Maybe, but maybe Pyongyang simply saw no reason to send the boats out if it couldn’t earn hard currency by doing so. Feeding hungry North Koreans is an insufficient motive, apparently.

Clearly, the last few years have been desperately difficult ones for North Korean fishermen. In their latest turn of misfortune, their government leased the rights to fish off North Korea’s coasts to Chinese fishermen. The big winners appear to be the Chinese. The larger ships of Pyongyang’s state-controlled fleet still operate, while small North Korean fishing boats have lost the most.

On the heels of a new bilateral fishing rights deal, state-run companies in the North are bringing in scores of cutting-edge fishing vessels from China, undermining the livelihoods of ordinary fisherman in the North.

“A fleet of new fishing vessels have emerged in the East Sea waters off of Sinpo, South Hamgyong Province,” a source from the province told Daily NK on July 6. These Chinese ships, outfitted with small refrigerating facilities, state-of-the-art fish-finding equipment, and high-performance GPS and radar systems, are under three-year contracts, which stipulate the entirely of any catch be handed directly over to China in exchange for cash– save the costs of the ship lease.

Such an agreement seemingly bears out claims by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service via a parliamentary committee on June 30 that North Korea sold its fishing rights to China this year to the tune of 30 million USD. [Daily NK]

See also The Joongang Ilbo. In other words, Pyongyang found another way to get Beijing’s money, and Beijing found another way to get Pyongyang’s fish, that Beijing thinks it can defend from U.N. scrutiny. But this has put North Korea’s fishermen in desperate straits. Most of their catch as been sold to China, denying them their livelihoods, yet they’re still expected to meet their steep “loyalty” payment quotas to the state.

The pact has spurred frenetic fishing expeditions by North Korean state companies to amass the highest possible amount of funds. China, on the other hand, “is simply sitting back and collecting on this deal,” the source said.

Therefore, the livelihoods of people living in adjacent fishing villages are on the line, which is of “entirely no concern to the [North Korean] leadership,” the source asserted, adding that while many see the season’s squid catch as their “year’s harvest,” but with their backs against the wall to pay loyalty funds, “state companies couldn’t care less about their troubles.”

These hulking vessels are north of 100 tons, highly mobile, and their operators unsatisfied to confine their expeditions to the deep sea, instead pillaging the shallow, coastal waters as well. Bottom trawling, an environmentally destructive fishing method that drags vast nets across the seabed, is also common.

The fishermen may not dare to challenge the North Korean security forces, but they’re ready to brawl with the Chinese fishermen.

Coupled with the fact that China supplies them with diesel and other fishing instruments, these smaller boats “don’t stand a chance,” the source noted, and “with little in the way of recourse, many [fisherman] are staging armed dissent.”

“Denouncing the vessels as ‘pirate ships,’ people hurl stones at them as soon as they spot them. The anger is so intense, in fact, that many of the [North Korean] fishermen stand guard at the ports armed with clubs to prevent them from docking,” he concluded.

In 2014, Pyongyang also leased China the rights to fish in its waters (including waters that both North and South Korea claimed). That same year, however, the North Korean coast guard seized a Chinese fishing boat, roughed up the members of its crew, and confined it on starvation rations until the captain signed a confession. With North Korea, the fact that you have a deal never quite guarantees peace.

Illegal Chinese fishing has also caused clashes with South Korea, some of them fatal. This has recently become a major diplomatic issue between the two countries.

But aren’t the North Koreans too docile and submissive to engage in violent protests against invited guests of the regime? Not really. North Koreans argue with their own country’s police over economic issues (as opposed to explicitly political ones) more than we tend to assume. Brian Myers has described the North Korean tendency toward childlike, spontaneous rage and offers evidence that the state encourages it (within limits, obviously). In this case, the anger of the fishermen derives from a combination of material desperation and xenophobia — both sentiments we can reasonably believe to be stronger in North Korea than in South Korea.

There are several ways this could end badly for Pyongyang — with violent clashes between North Korean and Chinese fishermen, with violent clashes between North Korean fishermen and North Korean police, or in the long term, by giving China a basis to make expansionist claims to a right to fish in Korean waters.

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The evidence of China’s compliance with North Korea sanctions is still mixed.

This week, there has been much talk and excitement about a new study, by the new blog Beyond Parallel, analyzing satellite imagery of six select sites along the Chinese-North Korean border, and finding evidence of a recent decline in bilateral trade. From this, the study concludes that China may be (as Josh Rogin paraphrases it for The Washington Post) “Beijing has been quietly punishing Kim by cutting off the flow of funds to his regime.” Here are the study’s two main findings:

First, the satellite images indicate a substantive reduction of economic activity on the Sino-North Korean border measured by the fewer trucks, trains, and boats in the February 2016 image compared to a similar timeframe in 2015. [….] In the aftermath of North Korea’s January 2016 nuclear test, this observed downturn in activity was comprehensive across customs areas, railway, and road traffic.

Second, the images also suggest that independent Chinese actions were taken to reduce trade in this region after the nuclear test and prior to China’s signing on to UN Security Council Resolution 2270. These findings run contrary to some estimates that Sino-North Korean trade (particularly Chinese exports) increased in the first quarter of 2016, and might confirm large anomalies in trade data as reported by China’s customs statistics, KOTRA (Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency), and other organizations.

The study is interesting and data-driven, and every North Korea-watcher should celebrate the launch of any new information source that promises this kind and quality of analysis. What’s more, by analyzing the volume of traffic at multiple sites over several months, the study is less vulnerable to the regime’s manipulations than the satellite theater that is almost the only good reason to read 38north (the contributions of J.R. Mailey and Andrea Berger being two other notable exceptions).

It’s especially tempting to feel triumphal about Victor Cha’s conclusions that China has taken “unilateral measures to drastically curtail trade interaction along their border,” and that China is “squeezing [North Korea] more than we were led to expect.” Still, the evidence and my objectivity restrain me to say, “Not so fast.”

First, there is also substantial evidence that China is still violating key provisions of the sanctions to prop North Korea up. North Korea’s most important export by reported volume is coal, followed by other minerals, and as NK News’s invaluable Leo Byrne has noted, the trade in sanctioned minerals continues. To some extent, North Korea has shifted its coal exports to other avenues, including At the land border, trucks loaded with titanium are still crossing into China. Worse, North Korean ships that have been specifically designated by the U.N. are still operating, and in some cases, are coming very close to Chinese ports they aren’t even supposed to approach. Then, their transponders go dark. This suggests that those ships are either landing in Chinese ports or off-loading their cargo onto smaller vessels without landing. Both alternatives violate UNSCR 2270.

Second, the kinds of commerce that benefit the regime most (as opposed to market trade that benefits the North Korean people) aren’t easy to measure with satellites. North Korea’s other lucrative exports include gold, weapons and weapons and technology, and labor. Its most essential imports include bulk cash, wire transfers, gold (again), and luxury goods that come in on Air Koryo. It probably also earns significant revenue through tourism. These are not things that can be measured by counting railcars.

Third, the study focuses on overland trade but tells us little about maritime trade. If the authors of the study want to improve the utility of this project — and I emphasize that it’s potentially a very valuable one — it should also examine maritime traffic to and from the key North Korean ports of Nampo and Sinuiju. Maritime trade is more likely to be under the control of, and to the immediate benefit of, the regime. It should specifically look for trade in bulk cargo like coal, imports and exports of fuel, and the movement of designated ships (it’s possible to match IMO numbers from transponders with satellite images).

Fourth, there may be other explanations for Beyond Parallel’s observations. I’ve long felt that Korea-watchers were far too trusting of officially reported statistics on China’s trade with North Korea, and the case of China’s fuel exports to North Korea illustrates just how easily China can manipulate those statistics. But to the extent we believe those stats, they do show a significant decline in North Korea’s exports over the last six months. The problem with attributing this to sanctions is that this decline extends a trend that we began to observe earlier, particularly in the mining industry. In fact, at Benjamin Katzleff Silberstein has pointed out on several occasions, this decline in trade volume has a closer correlation to the decline China’s economy than it has to sanctions. An interesting question is whether China’s own internal market controls, including its restrictions to prevent capital flight, may be playing a role, but that question is beyond the depth of my knowledge of economics (anyone? Bueller?).

Other potential causes of a decline in bilateral trade include regime-driven trade and travel restrictions leading up to the party congress in May, and problems with North Korea’s infrastructure, such as the partial collapse and subsequent repair of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge last October. (The effects of this may or may not have ended before Beyond Parallel’s study began.) That would also help explain why the study found that trade began to decline before U.N. sanctions were increased in March.

Finally, we should not hope for China to enforce sanctions in unilateral ways that depart from the strict letter of the U.N. Security Council resolutions, whether by under-enforcing or over-enforcing sanctions. The main reason sanctions haven’t worked thus far has been — and continues to be — China’s under-enforcement of sanctions. That is why Congress decided that secondary sanctions were necessary to force China to comply, by dividing the interests of China’s fundamentally hostile government from those of its more pliable banks and industries, which need access to American markets. But what we don’t always realize is that sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. This veers off onto a long tangent, so I’ll save it for tomorrow’s post.

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Stop saying N. Korean overseas laborers aren’t slaves. They are, and here’s proof.

You absolutely must watch this extraordinary work of investigative journalism by Vice, exposing the North Korean slave labor racket in Poland. There are English subtitles available.

What is so exceptional about this reporting is that its detailed and careful investigation makes it immediately actionable. With a little googling, it’s possible to identify the names, position titles, and e-mail addresses of the Polish and North Korean companies involved.

That’s enough for the Treasury Department to add all of them to the list of Specially Designated Nationals for violating Executive Order 13722, which prohibits “engag[ing] in, facilitat[ing], or [being] responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

The prime target of designation should be the Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation, Segori-dong, Pothonggang District, Pyongyang, and the DPR Korea Chamber of Commerce, P.O.Box 89, Jungsong-dong, Central District, Pyongyang, for supplying the laborers. As Vice notes, Rungrado was also implicated in the U.N. Panel of Experts’ most recent report for selling missile parts to Egypt. The Polish nationals and companies that knowingly employ this labor under such exploitative conditions — and who lie about it so blatantly — should also be designated, to make an example for other users of North Korean labor.

Although North Korean laborers in Europe (chiefly, Poland and Malta) are smaller in number than those in Asia and Africa, they also earn the regime more funds per capita than their counterparts in poorer countries. And do you suppose the working conditions for North Korean workers are better in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East? If the Obama Administration is serious about enforcing its new authorities, it should start by watching this report and taking careful notes.

~   ~   ~

Update: On a related note:

North Korean workers are toiling for Chinese factories that make clothes for global labels like Ralph Lauren and Burberry, Radio Free Asia reported Wednesday.

One of their employers is Mei Dao Garment in Hebei Province, a source told the radio station.

Mei Dao first employed 54 North Korean workers via a North Korean trading company from January to July 2012. In April last year it also established another firm in Dandong, Miryong Garment, as a joint venture with another North Korean company.

Mei Dao now employs hundreds of North Koreans, according to the source.

Garment maker Phoenix Gold in Dandong also employs about 1,200 workers, and 800 of them are from North Korea, the source added. [Chosun Ilbo]

That’s specific enough to investigate, either by an outside NGO, or by the retailers themselves.

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Daily NK: China not taking North Korean coal shipments

Last week, I posted about the conflicting reports about China’s compliance with the new sanctions on North Korea. Just after I posted that, I noticed that the Daily NK had also added a report of its own, suggesting that amid a regime mobilization to expand coal production, coal exports were being refused by Chinese ports.

“Recently, we’ve seen a full ban on our [North Korean] ships at the Port of Yingkou in Liaoning Province, where coal trade had been most active with China,” a source from Pyongyang told Daily NK in a telephone conversation on Tuesday. “We’ve also received notice that the Port of Rizhao in Shandong Province will also gradually restrict entry.”

An additional source in the capital corroborated this news.

“The news suddenly arrived as a unilateral announcement from China two days ago, leading to chaos at the commerce ministry,” the source explained. “Cadres have been unable to decide whether to turn around all of the other ships at sea, on top of the coal and iron ore vessels that are still awaiting orders after being refused port entry at Yingkou.” [Daily NK]

Contrary to the predictions of sanctions skeptics, the bad economic news is not causing people to rally to the regime.

This setback was reported to the Central Party, but trade officials have instead chosen to admonish others for not taking action in advance to mitigate the problem rather than consider potential solutions. There has also been indirect criticism of the nuclear test and long-range rocket launch, with questions as to why they need to “clean up a mess made by others,” he reported.

Some cadres are reportedly expressing their concerns over the financial implications of these events, exclaiming, “If we can’t export coal any more, we’re done for.” The question of who will be held responsible for the export blockage also has people on edge, with some reminded of Jang Song Thaek shouldering the blame for the country’s failed currency reform and the stalling of construction for the 100,000 homes project in Pyongyang.

The source added that coal workers are also troubled by the export block after having been excited about the prospect of receiving increased rations as a reward for the “70-day battle” production surge. “Cutting off ration supplies [received from China with remuneration for coal] will negatively affect workers and result in diminished output, and by extension impact power plants, the industrial sector, and other aspects of people’s lives. This may in turn ignite a good deal of anger within the public,” he speculated. [Daily NK]

The export ban will affect the operation of the mines in due course. Last year, mine workers weathered another slowdown in Chinese imports because most of the miners’ wives trade in the markets.There will also be many, varied, and complex effects on North Korea’s industrial capacity, some of them completely desirable, and others that may cause the U.S. and China to agree that a use of the “livelihood” loophole in UNSCR 2270 is appropriate.

There will be impacts on the power supply, which has long been spotty, even in Pyongyang where it is disproportionately allocated. No doubt, this will be a good year for the solar panel trade. One positive impact of the last decades of unreliable government services is that North Korea’s poor have learned to be resilient, resourceful, and independent of the state. That’s why, despite last year’s drought and dire predictions of a new famine, North Koreans managed to avert the worst, probably through private agriculture.

It won’t be possible to completely shield the North Korean people from the impact of sanctions, but it is our obligation to mitigate it as much as we can, while telling the North Korean people the real reason why they suffer. Sadly, some short-term hardship may be North Koreans’ only way to escape a future filled with starvation, oppression, and war. The only escape from that future is to break either the regime, or its will to resist change, peace, and openness.

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China’s reaction to North Korea shipping sanctions shows strain, confusion

Two weeks ago, I surveyed the evidence of China’s compliance with new U.N. sanctions and found  mixed, yet hopeful signs.” One area in which the signs has seemed especially hopeful was the enforcement of shipping sanctions. The Philippines had already seized one designated ship, the Sierra Leone-flagged M/V Jin Teng, and detained another, the non-designated, North Korean-crewed, Tuvalu-flagged tanker M/V Theresa Begonia. There was also some evidence that Chinese ports were complying, but we’ll get to that later. 

Under the resolutions, all member states are required to seize designated ships, like the Jin Teng, but the reasons for the detention of the Theresa Begonia aren’t clear. A report that an unnamed U.N. member state had cancelled its registrations of North Korean ships could be a clue. If the state in question is Tuvalu, the ship might have arrived in port without a valid registration. North Korea’s reflaggers of choice have been Mongolia, Cambodia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Tuvalu, and Kiribati. 

Since then, however, China has pushed the U.S. into supporting the removal by the U.N. of four ships’ designations — the Jin Teng and three other North Korean ships — on the basis that China “discovered” that they were not owned or controlled by U.N.-designated Ocean Maritime Management Company at all. It’s worrying that this decision doesn’t appear to be based on any finding of the Panel of Experts, but on a unilateral conclusion by the Chinese, who pressured the U.S. to accede.

The U.S. did not accede easily. Reuters obtained several diplomatic messages between U.S. and Chinese diplomats, revealing that China threatened to hold up reauthorization of the U.N. Panel of Experts unless the U.S. agreed to removing the designations. This led to what Reuters called a “frustrated back and forth between Washington and Beijing,” in which Samantha Power accused the Chinese of “blackmail.”

The removal of the Jin Teng‘s designation presumably means that Filipino authorities will allow the ship to depart with its crew after the mandatory inspections are completed. Reuters had previously reported that a U.N. inspection team was on the way to the Philippines to inspect the Jin Teng.

It bears careful watching just how often the U.S. will be willing to cave to Chinese demands like these. On balance, it’s probably better to recognize and adjudicate exemptions, designations, and removals of designations than to just go back to what we all used to do — ignore China’s cheating. But there is also a great deal of confusion over how Chinese ports are enforcing shipping sanctions. According to a detailed report in the Asahi Shimbun, the ports of Tainjin, Yingkou, Rizhao, Penglai, Weifang, and Nantong have all barred North Korean ships from entering.

Sources close to Chinese port authorities and trading firms said the port authority in Yingkou, Liaoning province, initially prohibited the entry of all North Korean vessels to Yingkou port based on verbal instructions from the nation’s maritime affairs authority on March 16.

In addition, local port authorities had imposed a ban on entry by North Korean ships at the ports of Rizhao, Penglai and Weifang in Shandong province as well as Nantong port in Jiangsu province and Tianjin port as of March 21.

The five newly-added ports are all major gateways for China’s imports of natural resources from North Korea, while Yingkou port serves as a major hub for coal imports from the belligerent neighbor.

Port authority sources at Penglai and Weifang ports acknowledged that entry by North Korean vessels is prohibited.

“We received a verbal order out of the blue from the customs authority on March 19, and all North Korean vessels are anchored outside the port awaiting permission to enter,” said an official of the Penglai port authority on March 21. [Asahi Shimbun]

Note well that the sources quoted are all local port authorities and traders, rather than national authorities.

According to officials at trading firms involved in China-North Korea commerce, China’s maritime affairs authority has demanded that the operators of North Korean freighters stranded outside the six ports resubmit documents that are required for a port entry application. [Asahi Shimbun]

As a result, North Korean freighters are reportedly hovering offshore, waiting for the Chinese port authorities to review their documents. If the documents check out, they may be allowed to dock. The delays alone will be disruptive to Pyongyang’s finances. Increased inspections could also have a strong impact on North Korea’s lucrative counterfeit cigarette smuggling industry. NK News adds:

While NK News was unable to get confirmation from port authorities at the time of writing, live shipping data shows irregular groupings of North Korean vessels in anchorage off and in close proximity to the listed ports, a possible indicator that the measures are being implemented.

A group of 10 North Korean flagged ships is clustered around Longkou harbour, which is only 40km from Penglai, with a further five North Korean affiliated ships among them. The North Korean flagged Tong Chon is also in close proximity and is around 9km from the port of Penglai.

Four North Korean flagged vessels are also near Bayuqaun, which is within 50km of Yingkou, and are joined by a further eight North Korean affiliated vessels sailing under foreign flags of convenience.

According to the website of China’s Maritime Safety Administration, Yingkou’s port authority also has jurisdiction over Bayuquan port.

“There are an unusually large number of North Korea linked ships near Bayuquan and Longkou, which indicates they could have been rerouted from other ports,” Leo Byrne, Director of Data and Analytics at NK News said.

Another grouping of five DPRK flagged vessels has been seen near the port of Lanshan within the last 24 hours. Lanshan is 35km from the port of Rizaho, which is also on the alleged list of ports banning North Korean vessels from entering. Several of the North Korean flagged ships have since headed away from the anchorages of Lanshan and Rizaho.

“It’s worth noting that if accurate, the Chinese embargo would go well beyond what’s required in Resolution 2270,” Byrne said.

“But questions remain, it’s unclear why North Korean ships would be barred from those ports, yet not Dalian – the most visited port of call for North Korean ships in the area.” [NK News, Hamish Macdonald]

So what do the national authorities say? Beijing has denied implementing “a blanket ban” on North Korean ships, saying, “The reports have no truth,” and that the media should “not invent stories.”

The accusation is preposterous, typical of China’s hostility toward foreign media, and revealing of the pressure China is feeling. The Asahi and NK News reports are well supported and credible. They aren’t inventions, but they are inconsistent with other reports. Last week, for example, Reuters reported that China had banned only U.N. designated ships, and Yonhap reported that the port of Dandong had turned away a North Korean ship “as part of a broader ban on North Korean ships.” Adding to the confusion is the fact that North Korean ships have been turning off their transponders while at sea to avoid tracking.

As I’ve noted before, a complete embargo is more than either U.N. or U.S. sanctions require. U.N. sanctions bar coal imports except for “livelihood” reasons (whatever that means in practice) and require member states to seize ships owned or controlled by designated entities, such as Ocean Maritime Management and the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

U.S. sanctions authorize U.S. Customs and Border Protection to raise inspection requirements for cargo coming from ports and airports where “inspections of ships, aircraft, and conveyances originating in North Korea, carrying North Korean property, or operated by the Government of North Korea are not sufficient to effectively prevent the facilitation of any of the activities described in section 104(a).” Those activities include arms smuggling and WMD proliferation. They also mandate secondary sanctions against Chinese buyers of North Korean coal and other minerals.

In other words, U.N. and (especially) U.S. sanctions directly threaten the interests of local Chinese ports and traders, which is to maintain unfettered access to U.S. markets and the dollar system. Given the choice of trading with North Korea and trading with the U.S., some ports and shippers may — I stress, may — be choosing the latter. That represents a sharp divergence of the ports’ interests from those of Beijing, which is expending diplomatic capital to limit the harm sanctions do to Pyongyang.

This isn’t the only possibility here. The simplest is that Chinese ports and shippers are themselves getting conflicting and confusing instructions from Beijing. There is also some evidence that undercuts this theory. As recently as last week, some Chinese buyers were still accepting North Korean coal, perhaps believing that the “livelihood” loophole applied to their purchases (but see this). And the reported enforcement of cargo inspections at land border crossing almost certainly was based on instructions from Beijing.

If Beijing is now in a contest with Washington to influence the conduct of ports in northeastern China, then Kim Jong-un has indeed become a serious “strategic liability” for Beijing, just as its economy is slowing. It shows. For example, I’ve never seen the nationalist, anti-American Global Times show so much irritation and pessimism about North Korea. Read that last link. It’s precisely the kind of sentiment the U.S. should be encouraging in China. When North Korea becomes enough of a liability for China, China will rethink its interests, and maybe diplomacy will stand a chance.

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China & Russia alarmed about secondary sanctions, because sanctions never work.

After years of extensive, flagrant, and well-documented violations of U.N. sanctions against North Korea, China is finally reaping the consequences. Americans don’t agree on much anymore, but Beijing’s cheating has achieved a political impossibility — it has united 418 representatives, 96 senators, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the mainstream of North Korea watchers in support of secondary sanctions on the (mostly Chinese) banks and businesses that are propping up Kim Jong-un financially. That policy is now expressed in law, and the U.S. Treasury Department has taken its first steps toward aggressive implementation.

Not surprisingly, China isn’t happy about this.

The so-called secondary sanctions will compel banks to freeze the assets of anyone who breaks the blockade, potentially squeezing out North Korea’s business ties, including those with China.

Asked whether China was worried the sanctions could affect “normal” business links between Chinese banks and North Korea, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said this was something China was “paying attention to”.

“First, as I’ve said many times before, China always opposes any country imposing unilateral sanctions,” Lu told a daily news briefing in Beijing.

“Second, under the present situation where the situation on the Korean Peninsula is complex and sensitive, we oppose any moves that may further worsen tensions there.”

“Third, we have clearly stressed many times in meetings with the relevant county, any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests.” [Reuters]

So far, Treasury hasn’t frozen any Chinese and Russian assets, but it’s delivering a message to Chinese banks to stay away from North Korea, and the banks are listening. Even before the U.N. Security Council approved UNSCR 2270, some Chinese banks and businesses began freezing North Korean assets.

“Any so-called unilateral sanctions imposed by any country should neither affect nor harm China’s reasonable interests,” Lu warned. He said Beijing has stressed this point many times.

The new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly,” said Elizabeth Rosenberg, a sanctions expert at the Center for a New American Security, the new sanctions “up the ante quite significantly.”

“It does impose something akin to a full embargo on persons who do business with North Korea,” she said.

Victor Cha, senior fellow to the Bush Institute on North Korea and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, said these comments show Beijing is concerned about getting caught in the sanction net. In an interview with Foreign Policy, he said China was especially worried about the slave-labor provisions.

“China imports North Korean slave labor,” he said. “That’s the piece the Chinese don’t like the most, the secondary sanctioning.”

“This is a grade up from the level of sanctions that had been in place before,” Cha added. [Foreign Policy, David Francis]

Russia, too, has actively aided North Korea’s violations of U.N. sanctions, and it’s also upset about “unilateral” U.S. sanctions. Its propaganda machine is churning out tired arguments that sanctions will only hurt the North Korean people, although I don’t recall Russian propaganda outlets complaining that North Korea’s last long-range missile test cost enough to fund World Food Program operations in North Korea for 15 years.

Despite Moscow’s ambivalence about sanctioning Pyongyang, Gazprom just cut its ties to North Korea. Oddly enough, the U.N. sanctions don’t even require this. Sure, it’s possible that Vladimir Putin has had a change of heart and decided to pressure Kim Jong-un, but it seems more likely that Gazprom is concerned about the legal risks from Treasury’s sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s energy industry.

The reports on China’s compliance with the sanctions continue to be mixed. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter says, “China could do much more than it has to get North Korea to ‘stop provocations,’” while a senior State Department official recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that China was “ready to work with us on detailed implementation and consultation on a range of issues.” Both of those things could be true, I suppose, but they yield different headlines.

Until recently, cargo had transited the land border between China and North Korea more-or-less unimpeded, but now, according to both Yonhap and the Chosun Ilbo, China has stepped up inspections at its border crossings, too. With respect to maritime cargo, Yonhap cites South Korean government sources who claim that Beijing has directed local governments to bar the 31 U.N.-designated North Korean ships from its ports. The Asahi Shimbun reports that “China has banned the entry of North Korean vessels to Yingkou port in Liaoning province, a major gateway for China’s coal imports” from the North.

As of March 18, two North Korean ships were stranded outside the port, located about 200 kilometers northwest from the border between the two countries. The vessels have reportedly decided to return to North Korea. “China will likely impose a similar embargo at other ports from now on,” a source familiar with the matter told The Asahi Shimbun. [Asahi Shimbun]

Two press reports dated the same day contradict each other about whether China is enforcing the ban on importing North Korean coal. Reuters says that the Chinese government hasn’t told Chinese coal buyers to stop importing North Korean coal; the Joongang Ilbo says it has. To further complicate matters, the U.N. sanctions have a “livelihood” loophole, while U.S. sanctions have much narrower humanitarian exceptions. A reasonable, middle-ground approach that’s completely consistent with both authorities would be to interpret “livelihood” to require payment in food, humanitarian supplies, or donations to the World Food Program or other humanitarian aid programs. It should prohibit payment in gold, dollars, or other convertible currencies.

U.N. sanctions ban mineral imports from North Korea and require member states to seize property of designated entities, including Ocean Maritime Management and the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which also reportedly operates a small fleet of ships . They do not impose a blanket embargo on North Korean trade. U.S. sanctions do not impose a trade embargo, either, but do authorize U.S. Customs to step up inspections of cargo coming from ports that fail to inspect cargo coming from or going to North Korea. This amounts to a secondary sanction.

On the financial front, the Chosun Ilbo quotes “sources” as claiming that the Dandong branch of the U.N.- and U.S.-designated Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation has closed. In 2013, it simply went underground for a while, but this time, it actually appears to have closed. The Chosun also reports that “[a] growing number of North Korean restaurants in northeastern China are closing down.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. and South Korea are meeting this week to “review and discuss ways to maximize pressure on North Korea by effectively applying the three axes of the Security Council resolution, unilateral sanctions imposed by South Korea and the U.S., and pressure by the international community.” In Seoul, Sung Kim, the U.S. representative to the six-party talks, says our government intends to enforce U.N. sanctions with “vigor and energy,” but undercuts that conclusion with this:

Asked if Russian and Chinese companies employing North Korean workers would be subject to the sanctions, Fried said the new executive order provides “very broad authorities” to deal with the issue. “It doesn’t mandate anything in particular, but the authorities are there if needed,” he told reporters, standing next to Sung Kim. [Yonhap]

Ambassador Kim is mistaken. The executive order implements a statute whose sanctions are mandatory. Recently, China has expressed interest in three-way consultations with the U.S. and South Korea about enforcement of the sanctions. Expect those consultations to be tense. The left-leaning Hankyoreh Sinmun reports that the South Korean and Chinese foreign ministers “clashed” over the enforcement of sanctions against the North in a recent phone call. Securing our interests will require firmness and resolve, but it would still be preferable for all involved if China implements the sanctions “voluntarily.”

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HSBC freezes “at least” $87M in assets of North Korea-linked Chinese tycoon

You all remember Sam Pa, right? He’s the Chinese ex-spy with a history of dubious business dealings in Africa, for which he was eventually sanctioned by the Treasury Department. Pa’s 88 Queensway group also had dealings with Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation, a financial arm of North Korea’s Bureau 39, for which he was not designated. Today, this happened:

HSBC has frozen more than $87m in accounts linked to a Chinese tycoon behind several multibillion-dollar deals in Africa, while it investigates allegations of “serious financial crimes”.

Accounts controlled by Sam Pa and his business associate Veronica Fung were blocked by the bank a year ago, but its internal investigation is still going, court documents have revealed. Last week, a Hong Kong judge declined Mr Pa and Ms Fung’s request that he order HSBC to release the funds, which are “extremely substantial”, according to the ruling. One account alone contains $87m, the documents show.

Mr Pa has built a network of interests in oil, minerals and infrastructure by cultivating regimes regarded as among the world’s most repressive and corrupt, from Angola to North Korea — often blazing a trail for Chinese state-owned groups. [Financial Times]
The story included no suggestion that the action was related to Pa’s links to North Korea. Oh, and you all remember who’s in charge of compliance at HSBC, right? Good for HSBC.

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N. Korea sanctions are failing because of China. That’s why we need secondary sanctions.

Last November, I put up a post cataloging China’s long and deep history of breaking U.N. sanctions against North Korea. The post, which relied heavily on reports of the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring North Korea sanctions, attracted a great deal of attention, including from Senate staff as they considered the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. The new POE report, released yesterday, is almost 300 pages long (including exhibits) and has more than enough material to make a rich sequel to that post. It has almost as much evidence of China’s willful blindness or outright duplicity as the rest of the reports combined.

Yesterday, I singled out one of the most brazen examples, in which the Bank of China told a North Korea-linked customer to hide those links when it processed $40 million in wire transfers through the U.S. financial system (the Chinese government delayed the release of the report because of its objection to that finding).

And there is so much more. For example, multiple U.N.-designated North Korean arms smugglers and proliferators are still operating openly in China. Leader Trading Company and Korea Taesong Trading operate out of Dalian and possibly Dandong (paras. 169-170), while Korea Tangun Trading Corporation still operates out of Shenzhen, under the alias Ryungseng Trading Corporation (para. 174).

They’re keeping busy, too. A cargo of missile-related parts seized on its way to Syria passed through Dalian, despite being linked to Leader Trading Company and Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, or KOMID (also designated). The North Koreans “used two companies, Dalian Union International Trading Co., Ltd. and Dandong Yongxinghe Trade Co., Ltd. … to procure the items” from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other locations.

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Few of the suppliers asked who the end users were, but in the one case when one did, the Chinese middlemen didn’t answer (paras. 62-70). In the annexes, you can see multiple documents associated with Leader Trading and KOMID’s shipments to Syria, listing addresses in China.

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In 2013, an unnamed member state intercepted a shipment of SCUD missile parts on their way from Beijing to a trading company in Egypt. (Sharp-eyed readers may wonder if this is the same Egyptian trading company the Treasury Department designated here, under Executive Order 13687 last year. It wasn’t, which suggests that Egypt’s links to North Korea aren’t just a one-off, but an issue that deserves more diplomatic attention than it’s getting.) The North Koreans flew the parts to Beijing aboard Air Koryo. The shipper, Ryongsong Trading Co. Ltd., used the same address as North Korea’s embassy in Beijing (paras. 71-75).

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The North Koreans obtained UAVs with military applications from suppliers in China, or from Chinese intermediaries (paras. 78-91). There are many documents on this in the exhibits, mostly from Chinese suppliers.

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Remember when the South Koreans recovered UAVs that had overflown the Blue House and Baekryeong Island? This seems rather damning.

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Remember those special “logging” vehicles the North Koreans bought from Hubei Sanjiang Space Wanshan Special Vehicle Company — quite possibly the world’s only manufacturer of extraterrestrial logging equipment — until they showed up in a parade hauling missiles through downtown Pyongyang? Senator Cruz gave that one an honorable mention in an angry letter he sent to President Obama this year, calling for secondary sanctions on China.

Well, guess what just happened again? This time, Chinese trucks are being used to haul 300-millimeter rockets, which are a serious threat to Seoul, and to U.S. military installations in South Korea (paras. 96-100). China’s defense is that it told the North Koreans to use these $50,000-a-pop trucks strictly for commercial purposes only. (I’m guessing the trucks North Korea actually uses for strictly commercial purposes have somewhat lower Kelly Blue Book values than this.) Except when North Korea lies about end-uses to normal, law-abiding countries, said countries tend to stop selling them those things. Now, UNSCR 2270 prohibits the sale of dual-use trucks.

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A Chinese middleman, George Ma, procured at least four armored Mercedez S-Class sedans for His Corpulency. The cars were purchased from Germany and customized in the United States (I’m guessing the services included putting in extra-strong rear springs). There’s no evidence in the reports to suggest that the German supplier or the American customizer knew where the cars were headed, but the U.S. shop appears not to have done its due diligence on the Chinese purchaser (paras. 118-121), which revealed its North Korean connections on its website. Depending on the timing and other factors, this could be a violation of Executive Order 13551.

I wonder how many kids you could feed for what one of those cars cost. Remember, it’s the sanctions that are starving North Koreans. Just keep repeating that until you believe it.

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 10.16.00 PMMirae Shipping, a subsidiary of U.N.-designated Ocean Maritime Management, helped broker the 2013 Cuba arms deal from its office in Shenzhen. From there, things get so unbelievably weird that I’ll just put it out there and let you read it for yourself:

143. Around the time of the designation, in July 2014, Mirae operated several foreign-flagged vessels as charter parties. However, it failed to make its payments, given that it was experiencing financial difficulties. The vessels’ owner companies and mortgagees (“the claimants”) requested maritime courts in Wuhan and Qingdao, China, in August and September 2014, respectively, to arrest and detain several vessels, including the Great Hope and the Benevolence 2. 71

144. In response, the Harbour Superintendence Authority of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea arrested and detained the claimants’ vessels in the country’s ports on the pretext of “tax evasion” (see annex 87). Another vessel owned by the claimants was already being detained by the country owing to a prior dispute between the charterer and the Korean Ocean Shipping Agency.

145. Subsequently, the Ministry of Land and Marine Transport intervened on behalf of OMM. The Ministry/OMM then led the negotiation by framing the disputes as a single package deal. The negotiations resulted in a set of complex arrangements aimed at achieving the simultaneous releases of multiple vessels among the various parties. The Panel notes the clear influence exerted by the Ministry/OMM over the Harbour Superintendence Authority and the country’s other shipping companies.

146. The negotiations were settled in December 2014 with the release by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea of the claimants’ vessels in exchange for the claimants’ release from China of the Mirae-operated vessels (see annex 87).72 The settlement’s terms significantly favoured OMM. Mirae was released from outstanding debts. The claimants were forced by the Ministry/OMM to abandon another vessel, which was then transferred to Korea Tong Hung Shipping and Trading (the vessel’s operator) at no cost.

The upshot:

That OMM and the Ministry of Land and Marine Transport, in particular the Ministry’s senior official, Mr. Kim Yu Il, coerced the claimants to transfer to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at least two vessels (Benevolence 2 and Great Hope) operated by Mirae (acting on behalf of OMM), which constitutes evasion of the sanctions imposed under paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraphs 8 and 11 of resolution 2094 (2013). The Ministry acted on behalf of OMM and assisted in its evasion of sanctions;74

China wasn’t alone in being implicated in the report:

  • Para. 30-33. North Korea’s KN-08 ballistic missile looks like a clone of the Soviet 9M79. Unfortunately, the report doesn’t say how the North Koreans got the plans for the missiles, or whether they got them after the U.N. first imposed its sanctions in 2006. The KN-11 submarine-launched missile also looks a lot like a Soviet SS-N-6/R-27, because the North Koreans obtained one from the Soviets in the 1990s and reverse-engineered it.
  • Para. 61. Burma continues to purchase suspicious nuclear-related items.
  • Para. 94. Eritrea appears to be doing some kind of arms deal with the North Koreans.
  • Paras. 101-106. Namibia got busted hiring KOMID to build it a weapons factory. The key North Korean personnel are diplomats posted in South Africa, who shuttle back and forth between the two countries.
  • In multiple parts of the report, it’s clear that Syria continues to be a major North Korean arms client.
  • Paras. 112-117. Uganda and Viet Nam have both hired North Korean military or police advisors, something that the Panel of Experts thinks was already a violation of past resolutions (me, too), but which is now a definite no-no under UNSCR 2270.
  • Para. 123-129. Israel sold North Korea $346,726 in gold, India sold them $1,913,677 in precious metals and stones, Thailand sold them$262,908 worth of cars, and Brazil sold them some unknown amount of jewelry. Once again, with feeling: sanctions starve babies.
  • Para. 182-186. A Taiwanese company, Royal Team Corporation, sold pressure sensors to North Korea for its missile program, and not for the first time. RTC has been supplying the North Koreans continuously since 2004, often hand-carrying the merch to Pyongyang through (you guessed it) Beijing and Macau. In 2008, a Taiwanese court even convicted RTC for supplying sensitive technology to North Korea. RTC needs to be sanctioned to extinction. Then, its officials should be locked away Supermax, its factory razed, and the grounds sown with salt.
  • Annex 1. The POE is investigating possible attempted North Korean arms dealing involving the UAE, Malaysia, and Ethiopia.

There is also more evidence of North Korea’s abuse of engagement programs to obtain sensitive technology, including from The Centre for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia and the Pacific (para. 46) and the International Astronautical Federation (paras. 55-58 and this post).

Overall, the Panel concludes that North Korea is as determined as ever to acquire nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and that sanctions are failing due to member states’ failure to enforce them.

Given the stated intentions of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and its continued efforts to enhance the scope of its nuclear and missile programmes and to seek international acceptance and legitimacy for these prohibited programmes, there are serious questions about the efficacy of the current United Nations sanctions regime.

The Panel’s investigations have shown that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has been effective in evading sanctions and continues to use the international financial system, airlines and container shipping routes to trade in prohibited items. Designated entities conceal their illicit activities by embedding agents in foreign companies. They use diplomatic personnel, long-standing trade partners and relationships with a small number of trusted foreign nationals. Its designation in July 2014 notwithstanding, Ocean Maritime Management Company, Limited continues to operate through foreign-flagged vessels, name and company reregistrations and the rental of crews to foreign ships. This enables it to obtain access to foreign ports in the region and beyond, as well as maritime insurance, a prerequisite for operation. [….]

All these activities are facilitated by the low level of implementation of Security Council resolutions by Member States. The Panel has consistently highlighted the problems of non-implementation of the resolutions, which allows prohibited activity to continue. The reasons are diverse, but include lack of political will, inadequate enabling legislation, lack of understanding of the resolutions and low prioritization.

The introduction calls out Africa and the Middle East — and certainly, there is evidence of violations there. Indeed, many other states have failed to turn in their compliance reports, or have provided reports of low quality, including non-permanent members of the Security Council. But for the Panel to fail to mention the one state that’s involved in facilitating just about every last one of these violations, either through its banks, intermediaries, immigration authorities, or ports, is telling, especially given the delay in publishing the report. I can only assume that the Chinese representative pressured the Panel to water down this language.

Despite the otherwise excellent investigative work of the Panel, its report shows us that the moral suasion of U.N. alone isn’t enough to make sanctions work. That will require a credible threat of secondary sanctions to get Chinese banks, ports, and businesses to comply, and that will probably require making some examples. For conduct that happens after February 12, 2016, there will be some new rules, and there should also be some very hard consequences.

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U.N. report: Bank of China told shipper in illegal arms deal to hide N. Korean links

Today, the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring (non-)compliance with its North Korea sanctions released its latest report, and it’s a doozy. Including exhibits, it’s almost 300 pages long, and the substance should be material for several posts. Our first installment comes from the December 2015 conviction of Chinpo Shipping over the 2013 Cuba arms shipment. Remember last July, when I asked, “What about the Bank of China?” Well, we have our answer, and from the look of it, the Bank of China had better lawyer up:

190. In a rare proliferation financing prosecution, the Singapore District Court charged Chinpo Shipping Company (Private) and its Director, Tan Cheng Hoe, with providing financial services or transferring financial assets or resources to OMM (see paras. 137-141). On 14 December 2015, the Court found that Mr. Tan had transferred $72,016.76 to a foreign shipping agent for the shipment aboard the Chong Chon Gang in July 2013 (intercepted by Panama).

191. The judge, Jasvender Kaur, stated that Chinpo “had conducted no due diligence whatsoever” before transferring the funds on 8 July 2013. She found that Chinpo had applied for 605 outward remittances totalling $40 million between 2009 and 2013 on behalf of nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The accused described himself as a “payment agent” for OMM.

192. Court documents provide ample evidence of both the implementation and the evasion of targeted financial measures. The documents indicate that, although Chinpo at one time indicated vessel names in its outgoing remittance forms, it ceased that practice in the second half of 2010. According to Mr. Tan’s statement, “more questions were asked by the bank in the United States when the vessel name was included, and some processing banks will reject the transaction after asking for more information”. He then stated that the Singapore branch of Bank of China, from which Chinpo had undertaken the transaction of $72,016.76, “had advised [Chinpo] to leave out the vessel name in transactions, that bank was aware that the remittances were being conducted on the behest of Democratic People’s Republic of Korea entities”.95 Apparently, as a result of that advice, Mr. Tan began to remove vessel names from the payment details. Chinpo similarly advised entities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on multiple occasions not to include such names in inward remittances, further assisting sanctions evasion. An employee stated that she had been instructed to include that reminder in outgoing e-mails. Another employee elaborated that that instruction had been included “partly because Chinpo wanted to get the money and the funds would be blocked by the US if the US knew that the transfers were made in relation to a Democratic People’s Republic of Korea vessel”.96 The Panel notes that such information-stripping is consistent with the evasion practices used by other OMM entities and individuals.

Got that? The Bank of China, in violation of Executive Order 13551, deliberately advised a customer to strip data out of series of transactions with a North Korean puppet, who was doing an illegal arms deal through the U.S. financial system. Whether the BoC knew the ultimate purpose of the transactions is no defense. Its legal obligations were to perform due diligence and know its customers, especially when that customer was linked to North Korea.

Stripping the North Korean affiliations out of a wire transfer gives this story the whiff of straight-up money laundering, not unlike the conduct that cost Barclays Bank a $2.5M hit for moving $3.3M for Zimbabwe, or caused Credit Agricole to eat a $300M fine for violating Sudan, Cuba, and Iran sanctions. Et cetera, et cetera.

Historically, $40 million hasn’t been a trivial amount of money to the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, especially when the data-stripping is willful. It is, to use the technical legal term, a “B.F.D.” This may be the point when we figure out whether the Obama Administration is finally serious about enforcing the law against North Korea or not.

~   ~   ~

Update: Yup, called it:

In the Bank of China’s case, Beijing’s diplomats have privately raised concerns about the panel’s decision to name the Chinese bank. They have argued that the only evidence comes from a Singaporean court and that the experts should have relied more on the word of Chinese authorities. [Foreign Policy, Colum Lynch]

Read the whole thing.

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WaPo editorial: “China’s switch” on N. Korea sanctions “had a lot to do with” H.R. 757.

After the President signed H.R. 757 into law, but before the U.N. Security Council approved resolution 2270, sanctions skeptics predicted that the new U.S. law would complicate diplomatic efforts to get China to enforce U.N. sanctions. Events thus far have refuted that view. After the President signed the new law, China, which had inflexibly opposed new U.N. sanctions for weeks, reversed course and voted for the strongest North Korea sanctions resolution so far. Even before China’s official retreat, China’s banks had already begun to freeze North Korean accounts. What explains this shift? The editors of The Washington Post offer this guess:

SECRETARY OF State John F. Kerry emerged frustrated from a meeting with China’s foreign minister in late January after proposing new U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Beijing balked, saying it was not willing to take steps that risked destabilizing the regime of Kim Jong Un even after the regime conducted what it claimed was a hydrogen bomb test. On Wednesday, China seemingly reversed course, joining a unanimous U.N. Security Council in imposing the toughest sanctions applied to North Korea in more than a decade.

What prompted this welcome change? Mr. Kerry and his State Department team spent weeks negotiating with their Chinese counterparts — and North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket last month over Beijing’s objections may have spurred a U.S.-Chinese convergence. Our guess, however, is that China’s switch had a lot to do with steps taken by South Korea and Congress.

In Seoul, the government of President Park Geun-hye, which Beijing has been courting, decided to move forward on plans for deploying a U.S. missile defense system that China regards as a threat. Meanwhile, Congress adopted new U.S. sanctions that could penalize Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea. In other words, the Chinese leadership finally was forced to consider tangible consequences for its coddling of the reckless and increasingly dangerous North Korean ruler.

The result is sanctions that, on paper, could have the most damaging impact in Pyongyang since the George W. Bush administration succeeded in locating and freezing the regime’s foreign financial assets in 2005. The new resolution orders the inspection of all cargoes entering and leaving North Korea, bans its export of some minerals and import of arms, and mandates a shutdown of its international banking activities. It also cuts off supplies of most aviation fuels and expands the list of luxury items the elite cannot receive. [Editorial, Washington Post]

In other words, and as I argued last month, the new U.S. sanctions law actually gave the Obama Administration more leverage to succeed in its diplomacy with China. As I argued last week, U.S. and U.N. sanctions are not contradictory, but complementary and mutually reinforcing. Indeed, the timing of the Chinese banks’ actions suggests they may be more responsive to Washington than they are to Beijing. I can’t overstate my doubts that China has had a willing conversion, and has decided to enforce the spirit and letter of U.N. sanctions. But the evidence increasingly shows that whether or not China’s government can be persuaded to enforce sanctions, its banks and ports can be.

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Yonhap: Chinese company stops buying North Korean coal

In what could be the latest financial hit to Pyongyang, Yonhap reports that an important Chinese customer has stopped buying coal from North Korea:

A Chinese company in the northeastern border city of Dandong has been ordered by China’s commerce ministry to halt its coal trade with North Korea starting next month, according to a state-run Chinese newspaper Wednesday.

Citing an unnamed Chinese businessman who operates a coal business with North Korea, the state-run Global Times newspaper said the order appeared to be linked to a measure against North Korea’s nuclear test last month.

“A relevant department of the Commerce Ministry and the General Administration of Customs issued the order and, as far as I understand, the Liaoning provincial government received the information,” the newspaper quoted the Chinese businessman as saying.

The report, however, did not identify both the businessman and the Chinese company. [Yonhap]

If the report is true — I emphasize, if — this could be a very big deal. By most accounts, coal is one of North Korea’s most important exports, if not the most important. Combined with the reported freezing of North Korean bank accounts, the loss of Kaesong revenue, and (of less significance) the drop-off in the restaurant business, multiple factions within the North Korean government may have just lost their main sources of revenue. The loss of that revenue could cause some factions to turn on each other for cash. It would also be a blow to Kim Jong-un, who needs cash to consolidate his power, and who faces a major party conference in May:

North Korea’s Kim Jong-un regime may face resistance from its military should the armed forces grow disgruntled at its bungled economic policy under the communist party-centric politics, a government-commissioned report showed Tuesday. [….]

[T]he military could call for reshaping the political order in its own favor if Kim fails to shore up the country’s debilitated economy and ensure sustainable military expenditures, the report pointed out.

“The stability of the Kim regime and party-military relations hinges on the country’s economic growth and continued military spending,” the report said.

“In the event of an economic failure, a shift in the Kim regime could emerge as the military — rather than regular North Koreans — would first demand a shift in party-military relations or call for a military-centric order.” [Yonhap]

See also the similar thoughts from Ken Gause, which I wrote about here.

The fact that China is taking credit for this arouses my suspicions, as did the reports that China ordered its banks to freeze North Korean bank accounts. Such an action would be welcome, of course, but seems questionable in light of China’s public and private opposition to financial pressure on North Korea. Further fueling those suspicions is the possibility of an alternative explanation, in section 104(a)(8) of the new sanctions law.

(a) Mandatory Designations.—Except as provided in section 208, the President shall designate under this subsection any person that the President determines—


(8) knowingly, directly or indirectly, sells, supplies, or transfers to or from the Government of North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of that Government, a significant amount of precious metal, graphite, raw or semi-finished metals or aluminum, steel, coal, or software, for use by or in industrial processes directly related to weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems for such weapons, other proliferation activities, the Korean Workers’ Party, armed forces, internal security, or intelligence activities, or the operation and maintenance of political prison camps or forced labor camps, including outside of North Korea;

I take no credit for this paragraph, by the way. The first suggestion of this idea I saw came from none other than Senator Marco Rubio. And here are the consequences of that designation:

(c) Asset Blocking.—The President shall exercise all of the powers granted to the President under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (50 U.S.C. 1701 et seq.) to the extent necessary to block and prohibit all transactions in property and interests in property of a designated person, the Government of North Korea, or the Workers’ Party of Korea, if such property and interests in property are in the United States, come within the United States, or are or come within the possession or control of a United States person.

We know for a fact that North Korea mines coal and other minerals in its prison camps — just look at the satellite imagery. It mined coal in Camp 22 and Camp 18, still mines it in Camp 14, and mines copper in Camp 12. It mines gold in Camp 15, and probably other camps. That means that Chinese mineral buyers have real exposure here. As with other recent reports, it bears close watching.

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Hey, China, let’s make a deal about North Korea. You’re going to love it.

Good morning, Vice-Minister Chen. I hope you enjoyed sampling our great country’s authentic cuisine at lunch today. If not, I keep a bottle of Pepto in my desk. As you know, the new Trump Administration is all about cutting government spending, although we know how to invest, too.  The neon signage and gold-leaf bathroom fixtures have been a yuuge morale boost here at Foggy Bottom. And yes, those are real diamonds on my pinkie ring. That was my annual bonus for giving the State Department the class it sorely needed. They love all the changes around here. They tell me so every time I ask them.

The new President, my boss and former client, certainly has made some unconventional personnel selections, but hey, who am I to complain? This is a nice change of pace from schmoozing those goombahs on the Gaming Commission, staring down those sanitation union goons, and haggling settlement agreements with slip-and-fall sharks.Screen Shot 2016-02-24 at 7.26.29 AM

These guys who work for me now may lack in style, but we’ve come to understand each other a little better. A few of them are pretty smart, and for a guy who graduated from the night program at Thomas Cooley, I think I surprised them with what a quick study I am. They’ve schooled me on a few things, and I think I can translate our differences into plain English, which is the only kind I speak. I want to get down to brass tacks on North Korea and close a huge deal. It’s going to be a win-win for you, for me, and for Korea. You’re going to love it, I promise. I won’t even ask you to pay for it.

Let’s start with the elephant in the room. Our economy isn’t great, but at least it’s recovering. Your economy is terrible, and it’s going to stay terrible at least as long as Japan’s did. Your stock market crashed last year because for years, you ignored some deep structural flaws in your economy. For all those years, you made policy decisions that seemed “safe.” In your workplace, it isn’t such a good idea to point out that the safe decisions the boss supports are covering up big problems. It’s so much safer to just go along and keep your head down. But unsustainable trends eventually end. And when they do, the longer they’ve gone on, the more likely they are to end very badly. Eventually, the big shots will come looking for those who allowed the crisis to build. And I don’t have to tell you what a bitch accountability can be in China.

You could say all of this about your North Korea policy, too. It’s a crisis we’ve both spackled over for years while the termites ate away at the beams and the rats ate the insulation off the wires. Their system is unsustainable. It might even be unstable. The little guys know the system is screwing them, just like the little guys in your country knew they were getting screwed in the 1930s. They see the rich getting richer and they hate it, but they have to hold their hate inside. The smart ones keep their heads down and scrape together whatever dough they can on the side, on the down-low. At least that gets them off the state’s dole, which they know they can’t count on anymore. They’re also getting wise about the outside world, and how good we have things compared to them. But they can’t protest it, they can’t vote out the people who are keeping them down, and it’s almost impossible for them to escape, so their anger just builds. 

A few years ago, a lot of people starved there. I used to ask myself why they didn’t overthrow that government, but then, the last thing a starving man thinks about is wasting energy he doesn’t have to fight the system. Plus, over there, everyone rats everyone else out. 

Mao got a lot of things wrong, but one thing he got right is that hunger doesn’t bring down a system, envy does. What makes people overthrow governments is figuring out that a few people are getting rich and keeping them down. A lot of us think the same thing here, as a matter of fact, but every two years, we get an engraved invitation to line up and overthrow our government at the polls. Is this a great country or what? Maybe that’s not your thing, but it’s a lot cleaner without the guns and pitchforks.

We know there are limits to how much pressure any closed container can hold. Eventually, the container explodes. Ever notice how these things tend to start with the little stuff, and aren’t really about politics when they first start? But once they do start, they spread fast. Then, things tend to get political. Of course, people have been saying this about North Korea for a long time. It hasn’t collapsed, but don’t tell me it hasn’t decayed.

We’ve had it with this punk, the South Koreans have had it with this punk, and we’re ready to give him and his whole system a good shove. I gotta hand it to him for getting this far. He cracked a lotta heads. But being a tough punk doesn’t make you smart. His top guys are all scared of him, but that doesn’t mean they respect him, and they sure as hell don’t trust him. Deep down, you don’t think he’s so smart, and neither do we. His caporegimes and consigliori aren’t going to simply wait their turn to get whacked, along with their families. Eventually, they’ll have no choice but to whack him first. Wouldn’t you like to get ahead of that?

Allow me to be blunt about something else — we’ve had it with you, too. We know your game. Every time this fat calzone does something that pisses us off, you rope-a-dope us by voting for some U.N. resolution, and then turn right around and break it to prop this guy up. Even John Kerry, who has to be the biggest freier of all those Harvard feinshmeckers, finally got wise to you. Knowing when you’re being played isn’t the kind of smarts they teach at Harvard, but I’ve seen a hundred guys try it with the Gaming Commission. No one in this town is going to be strung along by you anymore — not Congress, and not me. The more nukes the North Koreans get, the more likely they are to sell them. We’re not going to let this get to the point where they can drive nukes to Atlantic City in a submarine or a shipping container.

So what can we do about it? For one thing, payback. You know how much you hated it when we sold Taiwan all those PAC-3 Patriot missiles and Aegis cruisers. I wanted to sell them gas centrifuges and krytrons, but the pinstripes here almost passed out and begged me not to. We tabled that one, at least for the time being, but I gotta tell you, just between us, the idea of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea having nukes doesn’t exactly keep me awake at night.

OK, now, you really should take me up on that Pepto. No? You sure? OK, if you say so.

Maybe this will relax you a little — we’re not going to invade North Korea. All they have up there is coal and meth, and if we wanted more of those things, we’d invade Wyoming! Besides, why play to an adversary’s strength when they have so many weaknesses we can exploit far more cheaply? Even the geniuses who let North Korean go nuclear in the first place can see what those weaknesses are — money and legitimacy. My guys here think they can use those weaknesses to put a lot of pressure on Kim Jong-un, and maybe even overthrow him without firing a shot. 

You’re already seeing that between the South Koreans and our banking wizards, we can do some damage to those guys. Your bankers are his bag men. They hold the money that buys his swag, pays his army, and pays the goons that keep everyone in line. They’ve started freezing his accounts because they know we can do some major damage to them. This would be bad for us both, but it would be worse for you — much worse. Your banks aren’t looking so solid these days. Even the collapse of a small bank in China is going to mean a lot of angry depositors. Things could get ugly for you. There could be a ripple effect, even a panic. 

We can stir things up inside North Korea, too. For a long time, that government has invested a lot of scratch in keeping its people ignorant and keeping the news out. You can argue about what those people would do with the truth, but the government over there is obviously pretty scared about that prospect. Things there aren’t as calm and content as I used to think they were. The North Koreans aren’t robots. Just imagine how things would change if we found ways to give them cell phones, smartphones, and the internet. When that happens, well, the possibilities are endless

You can’t want this to get chaotic. That’s a dead end for you. Sure, violence might allow Kim Jong-un to survive in the short term, but there are a lot of guns over there, and parts of the army are corrupt and demoralized. In the long run, if he takes the violent path, you’ll have another Syria right on your border. The more brutal Kim Jong-un is, the more outrage there will be, and the more of it will stick to you. We’ll keep bringing it to the U.N. until you agree to help us disarm him peacefully.

Now, look — just take the Pepto. OK, feel better yet? Good. This is the part you’re going to love. We can avoid all of that unpleasantness. Let’s close a deal instead.

You want this guy Kim Jong-un out, but you’re afraid things could get out of hand. But the surest way for things to get out of hand is to just wait for them to play out. We want him out, too. So do the South Koreans and the Japanese. If we join forces to cut off the money and the swag, we both know he can’t last. All you have to do is stop buying his coal and minerals, and follow the U.N. sanctions for a change. Inspect his cargo and make sure nothing illegal gets through. Freeze the bank accounts you know are dirty. We can share information about the iffy ones. Maybe Kim Jong-un will take the hint and deal. Or maybe, we’ll just arrange some friendly meetings with some of those North Korean generals you’ve been schmoozing, who want to live to see their great-grandchildren. Surely there are some reasonable men among them we can do business with. 

Play ball with us, and there’s something in it for you, too. We can keep Japan and Korea from going nuclear. And if you don’t want the U.S. Air Force building new runways and setting up THAADs all over North Korea, I’m sure we can work something out.

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