You’ve often seen me write about the importance of “financial transparency” in transactions with North Korea. For a decade, economic engagement has mostly been done by one of two models: (1) controlled interactions with members of the elite, the actual effects of which are negligible at best; and (2) barbed-wire capitalism, where a few North Korean officials relay orders from foreign managers to hand-picked workers, and where the regime seals the whole enterprise off to prevent it from influencing the local community.
The former are, for the most part, of little financial significance. The latter may represent a significant source of income for illegitimate uses, and may also help the regime hide its flows of dirty money.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way by now. The idea behind economic engagement was to gradually draw North Korea into compliance with the rules that the civilized world lives by. Yet ten years later, the South Korean Unification Ministry can’t tell us how much (if anything) Kaesong’s workers receive after the regime takes its cut from their wages, and the Undersecretary of the Treasury recently expressed his concern about just how North Korea is spending that money.
The U.N. Panel of Experts now expresses a related worry — that North Korea could be using its ostensibly legal businesses to conceal and launder the proceeds of illicit activity:A few days ago, we saw that North Korean diplomats have been smuggling gold to earn hard currency for Pyongyang. That’s not just of concern because of how North Korea spends the earnings, but also because of concerns about conditions in which the gold is mined. As noted here, however, North Korea continues to run most of this business through the dollar system.
Hence, the renewal of FATF’s warning about “countermeasures.”
Recently, a scholar friend emailed me that his opponent in a debate had criticized the effrontery of blocking North Korean assets that are the co-mingled proceeds of legal and illicit activity. In fact, that is standard law enforcement practice, because co-mingling is the essence of how criminal organizations conceal the illicit origin of their earnings.
Defendants often commingle SUA proceeds with legitimate funds. The government need not prove that all proceeds in a transaction were unlawfully derived, but must be able to trace some of the proceeds to a SUA. Criminally derived proceeds deposited with legal funds are considered to be withdrawn last unless the account/business is deemed to be permeated with fraud. This implies that the business operations are so intertwined with fraud that to segregate the legitimate operation and profits is impossible. Special agents should work closely with the attorney for the government when investigations involve commingled funds to ensure the elements of the crime are met. [IRS]
The Treasury Department could do a great deal to regulate transactions with North Korea — and perhaps, put more food into empty bellies and drive the development of a true market economy — simply by requiring OFAC to license them. As a condition of each license, the Treasury Department could ask the applicant for assurances that the ultimate end-use of the funds would be for items that would benefit the people: food, clothing, medicine, consumer goods, materials for civilian construction projects, or electronic items like desktop computers that help to open up information flows.
To make this requirement truly effective, the EU Central Bank could impose similar requirements for Euro-clearing transactions. If Canada, Britain, Australia, and Switzerland joined, they would collectively cover just about all of the world’s convertible currencies, leaving only trades in Chinese Yuan unregulated. Of the latter, the Treasury Department could still target the most egregious with secondary sanctions.
In his paper about labor conditions in Kaesong, Marcus Noland called for investors in North Korea to adhere to a single set of minimal standards, akin to the Sullivan Principles. What I’m calling for here is a financial analogue to the Sullivan Principles — a requirement that investors ensure that their money will be used to better the lives of the North Korean people, rather than being wasted on weapons and luxury goods.
The real flaw in the engagement argument today, ten years after it began, is that it can’t show any significant, enduring, positive impact on North Korea, its treatment of its people, or its relations with the wider world.
It’s unfortunate that so many advocates of engagement are too focused on making nice with their minders to insist that the regime make any of the changes they once promised. Two good places to begin would be transparency in their labor and financial arrangements. If they did, they might strengthen their argument by showing that they’ve made legitimate, positive change in how North Korea does business.