It’s a rare day in any election year, much less this one, when anyone could write a post title like that about a major public policy issue. Now, for the first time since I began writing this blog, all of the cylinders — the President, the Congress, the U.N., South Korea, and Japan — are all firing in the same sequence to raise the pressure on Pyongyang and Beijing. Over the last week, we’ve seen the Republican Congress’s key foreign policy leaders and President Obama’s key cabinet secretaries all delivering the same message in Asia, calling for the strict and rigorous enforcement of sanctions against North Korea.
Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the architect of the legislation that was the impetus for the Treasury Department’s 311 designation of North Korea last week, is in Seoul this week, where he emphasized that “all financial institutions, anywhere, who now have a choice to make between doing business with North Korea and being cut off from financial transactions with the United States and the international financial system.” Royce added, “Given the threat posed by North Korea, now is the time to make it really difficult for Kim Jong-un to pay his generals, make it difficult to keep the production lines open for missiles, and make it difficult for him to acquire parts on the black market … and we must move in unison to take decisive action.”
Senator Cory Gardner, without whom Royce’s legislation would never have passed the Senate, and who is just back from his own visit to Seoul, also welcomed the 311 designation of North Korea.
“I’m pleased the Treasury Department, as required by my bill, acted to apply additional pressure to North Korea through this important designation that will send a strong message to Pyongyang and its enablers,” Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO), a key author of the sanctions legislation, said in a statement.
“I encourage Treasury to continue to vigorously pursue and implement additional sanctions outlined in my legislation, including designations against North Korea for cyberattacks and human rights violations,” the senator said.
Gardner said he held a meeting in April with Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin, who is responsible for enforcing U.S. economic sanctions policy, to call for vigorous implementation of the sanctions law.
“I urged him to fully implement NKSPEA, and particularly with regard to entities outside of North Korea whose illicit actions enable the regime’s survival,” he said. [Yonhap]
This is all good, but it’s the executive branch that enforces the sanctions authorities Congress gives it, and an important lesson from the 2005 squeeze on North Korea is that financial diplomacy and demonstrations of political will are essential to making sanctions work. Then, the Bush Administration dispatched senior Treasury Department officials to meet with bankers and finance ministers around the world to urge them to cut off Pyongyang’s cash flow.
I’d started to worry that the Obama Administration wasn’t demonstrating the same political will to enforce the new sanctions. The sum total of our financial diplomacy until this week had been one visit to the region by Adam Szubin in March, and a comment by the President in Vietnam since then. What is most essential is a strong demonstration to China that this is a U.S. national security priority. But after a slow start, this week, the secretaries of Treasury, Defense, and State are all in Asia, making it very clear to Tokyo, Seoul, and Beijing that this is a priority for us.
The U.S. will urge China to put further pressure on North Korea to give up its nuclear program during meetings in Beijing next week, a senior U.S. Treasury official said on Friday, days after Washington took fresh action to cut North Korea off from global finance.
“China has the ability to both create pressure and use that as a leverage that is a very important part of global efforts to isolate North Korea and get North Korea to change its policies,” said the official, speaking to journalists during a visit to Seoul by Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State John Kerry and Mr. Lew, will head to Beijing early next week for the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue, an annual meeting on economic and security issues. [Wall Street Journal, Kwanwoo Jun]
So far, so good. When the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of State are both in Beijing, directly pressuring China to enforce sanctions against North Korea, the Obama Administration really does appear to be making this a priority. If only it had begun doing so seven years ago.
In Seoul, Mr. Lew said the U.S. move builds on Congress legislation from earlier this year as well as Chinese-backed United Nations sanctions put in place in March to put the brakes on Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions after the country conducted a fourth nuclear test in January.
“It reflects the fact that the global community will not just tolerate North Korea’s actions of developing nuclear weapons,” Mr. Lew said, while declining to elaborate on what specific steps will follow to sever global banking relationships with Pyongyang. [WSJ]
China’s banks and businesses will feel the most direct effects of the new sanctions. Kerry and Lew probably hope to secure China’s face-saving, voluntary cooperation to avoid the unpleasantness of directly sanctioning Chinese banks and businesses that continue to enable Pyongyang, either by adding them to the SDN list or the 311 list, or by imposing civil or criminal penalties on them. As the New York Times explains in a detailed, must-read report, disengaging from North Korea will cost small Chinese banks billions of dollars, but the sanctions make the risks of continuing to deal with North Korea are even greater.
Chinese banks that do business with North Korea stand to lose several billion dollars in the wake of new United States Treasury Department sanctions on all such foreign institutions, analysts said on Friday.
The Chinese banks most affected by the sanctions will be comparatively small regional ones that facilitate the bulk of North Korea’s business in China, the analysts said. Major banks in China suspended their North Korean accounts in 2013 after the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, criticized a nuclear test conducted by the North that year, the analysts said. [N.Y. Times, Jane Perlez]
Not quite, but go on.
The Bank of China, for example, which has been expanding its operations in the United States and did not want its American business tainted by cooperation with North Korea, closed the account of North Korea’s most important financial institution, the Foreign Trade Bank, in May 2013. [N.Y.T.]
Yes, except for the flagrant and willful violations of sanctions by the BoC’s Singapore branch.
The smaller banks in the northeast area of China that borders North Korea would probably not want to risk continuing to do business with the North because the cost of sanctions by the United States would far outweigh the benefits of such commercial ties, said Jin Qiangyi, dean of the institute of Northeast Asian Studies at Yanbian University in Yanji. [N.Y.T.]
Now, cue China’s objection to these “unilateral” sanctions, which the Times answers perfectly.
The Chinese government said on Thursday that it opposed the Treasury action, although Beijing signed onto a tough new round of United Nations sanctions imposed on North Korea in March as punishment for a nuclear test it conducted earlier this year.
“We consistently oppose imposing unilateral sanctions on other countries based on one’s domestic laws,” said a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying. Instead of creating new sanctions, countries should “fully implement” the United Nations sanctions established in March, she said.
The United Nations resolution called on member states to terminate “joint ventures, ownership interests and correspondent banking relationships” with banks in North Korea within 90 days. The Treasury move goes a step further with its prohibition against United States banks’ allowing North Korea access to the American financial system via third-country banks.
If China were committed to enforcing the United Nations sanctions it agreed to, then the Treasury move would not affect it.
The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman’s pointed use of the word “unilateral,” however, raised questions about Beijing’s commitment to the March sanctions. [N.Y.T.]
One question I’ve been asked multiple times since last week is how Treasury’s latest action will compare to the 2005 designation of Banco Delta Asia. I think this is mostly right, too.
The collective impact on the regional Chinese banks by the Treasury action will probably be much greater than the losses incurred by Banco Delta Asia, a bank based in the Chinese special administrative region of Macau, when it was designated a money-laundering concern in 2005 because of its dealings with North Korea, said Cho Bong-Hyn, an analyst at the Industrial Bank of Korea’s Research Institute in Seoul.
“The impact would amount to approximately a few billion U.S. dollars, considering most of North Korea’s foreign bank accounts are in China,” Mr. Cho said. Even so, he said, few of these banks are entirely dependent on North Korea’s business. He doubted that many banks had North Korean deposits amounting to more than 10 percent of the bank’s total deposits.
“I don’t think these Chinese banks will be shaken by the said losses,” he said. “They may, however, worry about loss of future transactions.”
Most of them are in the major trading cities of Dandong and Hunchun on the border with North Korea, he said. These banks will now have to ensure that North Korea does not open bank accounts with them by using conduits.
“If such illegal accounts are detected, it could be fatal for these banks,” he said. “So both Korean and Chinese banks will have to do their best to prevent North Koreans from opening these irregular bank accounts with them.” [N.Y.T.]
But on the other hand, as Jim Walsh and John Park argued recently, North Korea has also done much work to diversify and conceal its financial flows since 2007, so it will likely take longer for sanctions to have as great an effect. As a senior Treasury official told the Wall Street Journal, “It will take a lot of continued, focused attention to make an impact,” that this will be a challenging year for the U.S. government to apply continued, focused attention to much of anything.
Inevitably, some Chinese banks, shadow banks, and non-bank institutions will play see-no-evil with customers they pretend not to know are North Korean. That’s where Treasury (specifically, its Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FINCEN) will have to show that it’s willing to drop some steel on target by enforcing its Know Your Customer rules strictly. (Note to FINCEN — your North Korea KYC guidance dates back to 2005 and may be in need of a refresh.)
It is not clear where North Korea might seek alternative places to conduct financial transactions outside the normal banking systems, the analysts said.
Certainly, North Koreans would want locations far away from financial hubs. Recently, North Korean businesspeople have mentioned Cambodia and Indonesia as possible channels, said a Singaporean analyst who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter.
Soon after the United Nations sanctions were imposed in March, Chinese traders in Dandong, the main gateway for transportation of Chinese goods into North Korea, were using alternatives to the Chinese-run Bank of Dandong.
In order to receive payments from North Korea, one major trader in Dandong said in April that he would receive a 50-percent down payment before a shipment. The money would be deposited in the Dandong office of the Korea Kwangson bank. [N.Y.T.]
Which may explain why Treasury singled that bank out in its 311 Notice of Finding.
That bank is North Korean and does business out of unmarked offices on the 13th floor of an office tower on the banks of the Yalu River. It was described as the last North Korean bank operating in the city.
The trader would pick up the remaining 50 percent payment once the goods arrived in North Korea, he said. The transactions would usually be in renminbi, although sometimes they were in dollars, he said.
In March, the Treasury singled out the Korea Kwansong bank for using front companies to gain access to the United States financial system and process transactions that supported weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.
Previously, the Treasury had said that North Korean leaders had used one of the bank’s front companies to open accounts at a major Chinese bank under the names of Chinese citizens and to deposit millions of dollars in 2013. [N.Y.T.]
The Times also reported on Treasury’s 311 designation of North Korea here.
Separately, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter is in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, where he met with his Japanese and South Korean counterparts to talk missile defense, improving the coordination of their defenses against North Korean provocations, and ensuring that they don’t undercut each other diplomatically through side deals with Pyongyang. To that end, South Korea’s Defense Minister is saying his government isn’t interested in “meaningless” dialogue with North Korea until Pyongyang commits to nuclear disarmament. Until then, it will continue to push for “watertight” sanctions. It most recently did so in a meeting between President Park and French President Francois Hollande.
So the good news is that this time, the State Department isn’t going to undercut Treasury anytime soon, our Korean and Japanese allies are solidly behind the effort, and U.N. member states are finally beginning in earnest to implement new U.N. financial sanctions against North Korea. The bad news is that the election is certain to distract the U.S. government. Key administration officials will depart for private sector jobs. The next administration’s North Korea policy is an even greater uncertainty, as is the North Korea policy of the South Korean president who succeeds Park Geun-hye.
A final must-read is this Wall Street Journal editorial, commending the 311 designation. I’ll give the last word to North Korea, whose reaction undercuts its argument that it doesn’t care about sanctions and that sanctions never work. Only time will tell, but the signs so far are good.