On balance, I suppose Kim Jong-un probably prefers to see his foreign emissaries expelled than boarding KAL flights to Seoul. Still, since we last took inventory of Pyongyang’s distressed diplomatic corps in March, several more North Korean diplomats have been kicked out and sent home, and His Corpulency is apparently displeased.
In 2014, I wrote about North Koreans who were bootlegging alcohol in Muslim countries, quite possibly the only illicit North Korean activity that also provides a useful service to humanity. At the time, I didn’t see strong evidence that any of the perpetrators were diplomats, but a series of arrests has delivered that evidence. Several North Korean diplomats have since been arrested for smuggling alcohol, using their status as a cover.
In April, a North Korean diplomat posted in the Pakistani city of Karachi was apprehended while trying to bring 855 boxes of duty-free liquor, nearly double the amount allowed, into the country. A source in Pakistan Tuesday identified the diplomat as Kang Song Gun, a commercial counselor at North Korea’s consulate in Karachi. [VOA]
You can read more about that arrest here. This Pakistani customs trade journal has a nice, detailed inventory of how North Korean diplomats stock their speakeasies.
In May 2015, another North Korean diplomat, Koh Hak Chol, a third secretary at the consulate, was apprehended by customs officials while carrying liquor that exceeded quotas, the source said. Pakistani officials questioned Koh for several hours but released him without charge. The Pakistani source said both Kang and Koh are still with the diplomatic mission.
Another source in Pakistan said some North Korean diplomats who were arrested for illegal liquor selling continued the illicit activity after their release. Trading alcohol in a black market is an important money-making source for many North Korean diplomats although the sale of alcohol is strictly banned in the Muslim country, according to the source. [….]
In April 2015, a North Korean diplomat and his wife were caught selling liquor inside the upscale Defense Housing Authority (DHA) development in Karachi. In 2013, Pakistan’s Express Tribune newspaper reported Pakistani officials had investigated complaints that North Korean diplomats were selling alcohol at the complex. [VOA]
An unnamed Pakistani source tells VOA that “[t]here have been at least 10 confirmed cases of illegal liquor trade involving North Korean diplomats in Pakistan since 2009.” So there is ample evidence that North Korean diplomats are involved. Unfortunately — or fortunately, if you’re a thirsty Pakistani — the Pakistani government still isn’t expelling them.
In April, North Korea suddenly recalled its ambassador to Germany, Ri Si-hong, who had been in his post since 2011. The reasons for Ri’s recall weren’t clear, although the Korean press offered several lines of speculation. The Chosun Ilbo reported that Ri’s recall followed Germany’s deportation of two other North Korean diplomats for “illegally raising cash for the regime,” and cited Radio Free Asia’s speculation that Ri was recalled “because he was being blamed” for the arrests. Yonhap (also citing RFA) offered the alternative theory that Ri had failed “to meet expectations,” which may mean he isn’t kicking up enough loyalty payments. The Donga Ilbo claimed that he was being held “accountable for Berlin’s condemnation of the North’s nuclear test in January” and for Germany’s subsequent support for UNSCR 2270. It also reports that North Korean diplomats had previously quarreled with their German hosts after the embassy rented out part of its building, in violation of the Vienna Convention.
Whatever the reason for Ri’s recall, in July, we learned that Germany had refused to credential Ri’s designated successor. Yet again, we could only speculate as to why, and yet again, the Korean press was equal to the challenge. Some said he was a spy in involved in “dubious business activities” (North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau is designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department). Yonhap also implied that the nominee had been “involved in unlawful activities in the past.”
At last word, Ri was back to Berlin to resume his duties — presumably, with his family under the watchful eyes of the Ministry of Peoples’ Security back in Pyongyang. If the German authorities ultimately determine that Ri was involved in illicit activities, it may be required to expel him, too.
In July, Vietnam banned a total of 28 U.N.-designated North Koreans and deported at least two of them. According to UPI, one of the men, Choe Sung-il, was a representative of U.N.-designated Tanchon Commercial Bank, who was in charge of North Korea’s arms sales in Asia. He was deported in April. Also deported this year was Kim Jung-jong.
According to NK News, however, Vietnam later denied that either of the men was associated with Tanchon, and even asked the U.N. 1718 Committee to update its designations accordingly. Valiantly attempting to deconflict these reports, Hamish MacDonald writes:
However, despite the requested amendments, it appears that Vietnam is not necessarily refuting that the two individuals were representatives of Tanchon Commercial Bank (TCB), but rather take issue with them being identified as representatives specifically “in Vietnam”, considering that it says that TCB did not have a physical branch within the country.
In the report’s conclusion, the Vietnamese authorities suggested that the listing of the two North Koreans be altered to simply “Tanchon Commercial Bank Representatives”, with no mention of Vietnam itself.
Another likely factor in the request is that the two individuals in question are no longer residing in Vietnam. According to Vietnamese authorities, Kim left the country in January – prior to the adoption of Resolution 2270 – while Choe departed Vietnam in April.
“Vietnam is clearly requesting a change to the designation explanations for Choe Song Il and Kim Jung Jong. It does not wish to be publicly associated with sanctions breaches and has given evidence that the individuals have left the country, which it claims should be sufficient for the ‘Vietnam’ portion of the designation text to be stricken,” Andrea Berger of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told NK News on Thursday.
“Its assertion that the individuals cannot be connected to Tanchon because there is no evidence that Tanchon had representation in the country, may in fact be the product of clever North Korean sanctions evasion,” Berger added. [NK News, Hamish MacDonald]
According to the U.N. Panel of Experts’ 2016 report, Vietnam had previously been one of Pyongyang’s customers, which might explain why Hanoi has a motive to dissemble. Furthermore, Tanchon had been designated long before this year. Vietnam may be concerned that the U.N. designation list implicates it retroactively.
Some of the 26 other North Koreans appear to be senior officials without ostensible links to ’Nam, who may have been added to pad its list. I say let bygones be bygones (this is Vietnam we’re talking about, after all). Now, our interests are converging again. It can’t hurt our efforts to secure Vietnam’s compliance that Vietnamese opinion has turned sharply against China over the South China Sea.
Earlier this month, Bangladesh expelled a North Korean diplomat for smuggling cigarettes and unspecified electronic goods in a shipping container. Reuters identified the diplomat as Han Son-ik, the First Secretary of North Korea’s embassy in Dhaka.
Bangladesh foreign secretary Shahidul Haque confirmed the order had been made to the North Koreans, but declined to give a timetable for his departure. Local media said he had been ordered by leave by Monday.
“We have asked North Korea to take him back for violating diplomatic norms,” Haque, Bangladesh’s top foreign bureaucrat, told AFP, declining to give details. A senior customs official told AFP the North Korean used his diplomatic immunity earlier this month to import the goods which were suspected destined for the blackmarket.
“The diplomat declared that his cargo contained food and soft drinks. But when we opened the cargo, we found 1.6 million stalks of expensive cigarettes and electronics,” Moinul Khan, head of intelligence at Bangladesh customs, told AFP. “At market prices these products are valued at 35 million taka (US$430,000). We suspect that he brought the products to sell to local smuggling gangs,” he said. [Channel News Asia]
KBS reports that the containers came in from Malaysia, which has close commercial ties to North Korea, and which should now conduct its own investigation into the smuggling operation — first, to determine whether any of the electronics were proliferation-sensitive items or luxury goods headed for Pyongyang; second, to determine whether U.N.-designated persons were involved in the shipments; and third, to determine whether the revenues from the transactions violated any of the financial due diligence provisions of UNSCR 2270 or 2094.
If that seems brazen, KBS also reports that Bangladeshi authorities are “conducting a probe into two other containers held under the North Korean embassy’s name that are suspected of carrying undeclared vehicles including Rolls-Royces and BMWs.” That’s a potential violation of UNSCR 1718’s luxury goods ban, depending on where those vehicles ended up.
I’ve long hoped that the Panel of Experts would focus more attention on North Korea’s Malaysian connections, in the hope that Malaysia would decide that it would rather do without this kind of attention. Hopefully, we’ll learn more about that investigation in the next POE report.
The position of First Secretary in Dhaka has experienced significant turnover recently. Last year, Bangladesh expelled Han’s predecessor, Son Young-nam, for smuggling $1.4 million worth of gold. UNSCR 2270 requires member states to “prohibit the procurement of” gold by North Koreans.
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Expulsions of North Korean diplomats appear to be on the rise. In some cases, that’s because UNSCR 2270 has emphasized member states’ duty to expel diplomats involved in certain prohibited activities. In other cases, diplomats appear to be engaged in the same old garden-variety smuggling North Korean diplomats are infamous for, only they’re making more stupid mistakes than they used to. Based on other reports I’ve read, North Korean diplomats are under pressure to maintain agency operations, pay their own salaries, and make steep loyalty payments to the Mother Ship. They appear to be making those stupid mistakes out of financial desperation.
It won’t improve morale that following Thae Yong-ho’s defection, Pyongyang is sending more security agents abroad to watch its diplomats more closely than ever, and has ordered the execution — with antiaircraft guns! — of those who fail to prevent defections. Or so says a “source, who declined to be identified.” That source also claims that His Corpulency “has ordered the families of North Korean diplomats and overseas workers back to the country following Thae’s defection,” as I’d have expected. I’m no longer alone in describing the death spiral of rising pressure on a shrinking pool of North Korean expatriates to support the regime, which ultimately breaks their morale, spurs more defections, and causes Pyongyang to call yet more expats home.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
But why the financial desperation? I’ve explained my doubts that the U.S. has made full use of its power to freeze North Korean slush funds, and I stand by those doubts. Could it be that South Korea’s cutoff of Kaesong, and its diplomatic push to cut Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency, have been more effective than I’d realized? Or might banks be blocking North Korean accounts already, in anticipation of Treasury’s final rule cutting North Korean banks’ correspondent relationships, or in fear of the enhanced due diligence requirements that will apply to North Korean customers? I suppose time will tell.
Update: Uzbekistan embassy closes
Yonhap reports that North Korea has closed its embassy in Tashkent for “restructuring.” That leaves no North Korean embassies in the ‘stans, and only one former Soviet state with a North Korean embassy — Russia. Really? Evidently so. I guess that foils my plans for getting my first visit from Turkmenistan.