For a few years now, I’ve heard that hedge fund investor, TV provocateur, and crackpot Jim Rogers has been urging his audiences to invest in North Korea. A few years ago, that advice might not have done much worse than condemn your soul to eternal damnation and bankrupt you, the way it bankrupted (or nearly bankrupted) Orascom Telecom and any number of otherinvestorswhopreceded it.
Since at least March, however, Rogers’s advice has been malpractice on a whole new level. Following the passage of a new U.S. sanctions law, the Treasury Department explicitly banned new investment in North Korea. It has also done much to jeopardize existing ones by imposing sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s banking, transportation, and mining industries. Perhaps, then, it’s time for Mr. Rogers to find a new way to attract attention. After all, the bans on investment are punishable as violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, with 20 years in prison term and a $1 million fine.
“If we all bought North Korean currency, we’d all be rich someday,” Rogers said. [Business Insider]
No, Jim, you won’t be rich. You might get three square meals a day, courtesy of the taxpayers. Also, you might be warm. After North Korea redenominated its currency in 2009, North Koreans burned piles of the stuff. Even the North Korean government prefers the dollar to its own currency. North Korean market traders prefer dollars and Renminbi.
In short, Rogers is seeing the controversial country open up, which he says makes it a good bet.
Here’s the relevant excerpt from the Q&A explaining why:
“Well, North Korea today is where China was in 1981. Deng Xiaoping started opening up in ’78. Most of us, including me, either weren’t aware of it or if we were aware of it. We ignored it, didn’t pay any attention. North Korea is doing that now.
“There are 15 free trade zones there now. You can take bicycle tours of North Korea, if you want. You can take movie tours. I’m sure if [Kim Jong Un’s] father were alive, he’d hang him. If his grandfather were alive, he’d torture him and then hang him, you know, for some of the things he’s doing. I mean, you go to North Korea now, you see these astonishing restaurants with white tablecloths, cutlery, candles. I mean, this is North Korea we’re talking about. Chefs. It’s happening.”
He added that his lawyer told him he couldn’t invest.
So we eventually come to the fact that Rogers’s own lawyer told him of the investment ban. I’ve previously described North Korea as the Trump University of foreign investment, and you’d think that on so many levels — financial, moral, and legal — no responsible advisor would point an investor there. Maybe Rogers’s next question for his lawyer should be about the penalty for solicitation of a felony.
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Update: The only solicitation offense I see in title 18 is for soliciting a crime of violence. So I guess it’s Rogers’s viewers who bear all of the risk by taking his advice.
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-dochorus 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 Ilboreported 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.
for the sanctions geeks, the latest Treasury/FINCEN advisory, in which North Korea seizes the top spot from Iran as a money laundering risk. If nothing else, it’s a useful reminder that North Korean banks’ cutoff from the financial system — the single most important sanction yet imposed on North Korea — still hasn’t become final and taken effect. It will take some time for us to see and assess the effects of that. And if that’s not geeky enough for you, you may be interested in FINCEN’s new rules on beneficial ownership disclosure, which could impact North Korea indirectly.
video of today’s hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Asia Subcommittee, featuring Victor Cha, Bruce Klingner, Sue Mi Terry, and David Albright. The big takeaway was that Chairman Salmon will propose legislation to cut North Korea off from “financial messaging services,” which either means SWIFT or whatever less responsible actors are filling that void for North Korea these days.
By now, diplomats at the EU have begun wrangling over the shape of the next North Korea sanctions resolution (let’s hope they at least vote before North Korea’s next nuclear test). Meanwhile, efforts to enforce the last resolution have lost momentum. With regard to both banking and shipping sanctions, the Obama administration doesn’t appear to have done much to encourage other U.N. member states to comply.
I’ve said before that following the money matters most, but North Korea’s transportation sector is another important pressure point. North Korea has long used its merchant fleet for smuggling drugs and weapons, and it has evaded law and sanctions enforcement by relying on reflagging — the registration of its ships under flags of convenience. States known to reflag North Korean ships include Panama, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Mongolia, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Belize, and the Republic of Palau.
In March, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, paragraph 19 of which requires U.N. member states to de-register ships that are “owned, operated or crewed by” North Korea. The U.S. Treasury Department followed this by imposing sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation industry under Executive Order 13722. So by now, no one should be reflagging North Korea’s ships, right?
Shortly after the resolution passed, Yonhap reported that an unnamed U.N. member state had canceled the registrations of North Korean ships, but just four days after UNSCR 2270 passed, Tanzania reflagged the notorious, U.N.-designated North Korean smuggling shipDawnlight (now sailing as the First Gleam). The Dawnlight was previously operated from Singapore, which has since pledged its full cooperation with enforcing UNSCR 2270. The ship is now operated by a Marshall Islands based shell company, Sinotug Shipping.
As Claudia Rosett pointed out, the North Korean-flagged ships that are making regular voyages between North Korea and Iran probably aren’t being inspected as required.
Two North Korean ships, designated by the Security Council as the Jin Teng and the Jin Tai, have switched registrations from Sierra Leone to Belize. Worse, UNSCR 2270 requires members states to confiscate designated ships on arrival, but the ships have since landed in the Philippines, Japan, Vietnam, China and Indonesia. In the case of the Philippines, the authorities initially seized the Jin Teng, but China lobbied the U.S. to have its designation removed. Both ships are now operated by a China-based entity called Blue Ocean Ship Management.
Cambodia, the top registrar of flags of convenience for North Korea’s shipping fleet — ironically, through the Busan-based Cosmos Group — claims to have suspended reflagging operations pending a nationalization of the reflagging procedure. The suspension was not specific to North Korea, and I’ve seen no reports that it has de-registered North Korean ships. That the South Korean government has no recourse to influence the conduct of a company based in Busan is perplexing. Seoul has lobbied other governments to enforce sanctions; maybe it ought to set a better example itself.
In August, a month after Park Geun-hye visited Mongolia, the Joongang Ilboreported that “The Mongolian government cancelled contracts with 14 North Korean ships to operate under its flag of convenience.” NK News’s Leo Byrne suggested that the ships may have switched their registrations to Togo, Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Kiribati, or particularly, Tanzania. Byrne specifically found that Tanzania had registered four new North Korean ships since the approval of USNCR 2270. The list of compliance reports required under UNSCR 2270 shows no report for Tanzania, although there is a lag time between submission and publication of the reports. Last week, Byrne reported that that Tanzanian-flagged, North Korean-crewed Jin Long had caught fire off the Chinese coast, and traced its management to a shell company in Hong Kong.
What measures would help enforce the sanctions? One is old-fashioned diplomacy. I’ve seen almost no reporting at all that our diplomats have lobbied U.N. member states to comply with UNSCR 2270. Contrast this with 2006, when Treasury Department officials went on a world tour, warning bankers and finance ministers to steer clear of North Korean funds.
A third option would be for the next UNSC resolution to simply deny landing rights to vessels owned, operated, crewed, or flagged by North Korea. If North Korea didn’t have a shipping industry at all, it would have to rely on third-country shippers, who would be more averse to the risk of sanctions violations.
If all else fails, the Obama administration must be willing to use EO 13722, or section 104 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, to impose secondary sanctions on ship registries that don’t comply with UNSCR 2270.
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 torise 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 growingsense 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]
“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]
It’s grim vindication this morning to see my prediction from two months ago now validated. This bomb appears to have had a higher yield than those that preceded it, and may show progress toward miniaturization. I’d already posted my recommendations for how to respond to this test, back in July. For the U.N. Security Council, the response should include new rounds of designations and the closing of sanctions loopholes. I hope Samantha Power will also push for bans on North Korea’s exports of food and labor.
For the administration, the answer is simpler — it should enforce the law the President signed in February. Ed Royce, the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, has now added his voice to Senator Bob Corker’s prescient call for just that.
“The North Korean regime’s continued belligerence demands a strong and swift response. The United States cannot accept a nuclear North Korea that threatens America and our foreign partners with mass destruction. That’s why, earlier this year, Democrats and Republicans in Congress joined together to help impose unprecedented new sanctions on the Kim regime. Sadly, however, it is clear the Obama administration’s enforcement efforts are falling short.
“Most notably, the administration has yet to impose sanctions on any of the many Chinese companies and banks that, according to a recent U.N. report, continue to support the North Korean regime. This must change. We’ve seen before that China will only comply with sanctions if Chinese banks face real consequences for doing business in North Korea.
“The United States and our foreign partners should also act quickly to sanction North Korea’s state-owned airline. Air Koryo continues to flagrantly violate the ban on luxury goods and has been implicated in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts. At the same time, the administration must also work with European governments to better block luxury items – including cars, watches, and liquor – from reaching North Korea’s repressive ruling elite.
“Aggressive sanctions enforcement, along with a renewed focus on stopping the North Korean regime’s export of slave labor, is key to cutting off the cash needed to sustain Kim Jong Un’s power, and his illicit weapons programs. Today’s detonation wasn’t just about testing nuclear technology. It was also about testing America’s resolve. Now is the time for this administration to act.” [link]
Yes, there are more sanctions we can add that would confront Pyongyang with a clear choice between disarmament and extinction. Banning North Korea from SWIFT seems especially likely to be effective, and overdue. For the safety of our citizens alone, we’re long overdue for a tourist travel ban. And because the evidence is overwhelming that North Korea sponsors terrorism, the State Department should at least stop lying to the American people and denying that.
I don’t blame President Obama for the fact that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath. I blame President Obama for not recognizing that Kim Jong-un is a psychopath, and for not recognizing the implications of that. Above all, I blame President Obama for not enforcing the law he signed in February, after the fourth nuke. Wasting eight critical years without agreeing on or implementing a North Korea policy may not stand out as one of this administration’s greatest foreign policy failures yet, but that’s only because it sits alongside his failure to support the Green Revolution in Iran, his non-response to the Syrian genocide, the fall of Anbar, the rise of ISIS, and a refugee crisis that threatens to destroy the European Union and its liberal social order.
No wonder Obama, sensing the weakness of his position, is now calling for “serious consequences” for North Korea. He holds the power to impose them now, but it sounds like he’s about to send Samantha Power back to the Security Council to bicker with the Chinese over the next resolution, too. He can enhance her bargaining power by sanctioning the Bank of China for laundering Kim Jong-un’s money, and by having someone in the Treasury Department leak a report that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation for the same. If we’re serious about avoiding war in Korea, we must be willing to shake the foundations of the Chinese banking system.
Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, gets it, however belatedly, and seems to realize exactly what’s at stake here. Her shrewd diplomatic and psychological warfare against Pyongyang has probably done far more damage to Kim Jong-un than anything Obama has done yet. She should now move beyond loudspeakers and open a second front in the information war for the hearts and minds of the North Korean people. As her opening act, as soon as the atmospheric conditions are favorable for good TV reception in Pyongyang, she should put Thae Yong-ho on the air to deliver a revolutionary manifesto to the Pyongyang elites. She should build a row of cell phone, AM radio, and TV towers on the mountaintops all along the DMZ. Then, she ought to get behind a guerrilla engagement strategy to undermine the regime’s control over the countryside.
For now, the calls in Seoul for nuclear armament and preemptive strikes are probably just talk, but they’ll continue to grow. The economic and security frameworks of the whole region are in greater danger than most of us realize.
As I said all along, the U.S. and South Korean election years almost guaranteed that this test would happen. I’ve also said that in the short term, sanctions would aggravate His Corpulency and force him to react. Anyone who knows anything at all about sanctions knows that they would take at least year or two to show significant impact, and that’s assuming they’re enforced. Unfortunately, they haven’t been — despite the fact that a string of high-profile defections has probably yielded more fresh financial intelligence about where Kim Jong-un’s money is than we’ve had in years. It’s long past time we used it.
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Update: To be clear here, I have no knowledge that the Bank of Dandong is under investigation or isn’t, but the BoD has been mentioned in previous reports as a holder of North Korean funds, and I expect to see more reporting in the coming weeks buttressing the case that they should be investigated.
Senator Bob Corker’s office issued this statement today:
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. – U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released the following statement today after reports that North Korea fired three medium-range missiles as the Group of 20 economic summit was underway in China.
“It is highly discouraging that China does little as North Korea continues to test and develop its missile and nuclear programs,” said Corker. “China wants the international respect due a country of its size, yet it refuses to responsibly address a growing threat to stability in its own region and has failed to fully implement United Nations Security Resolution sanctions. Meanwhile, the Obama administration continues to drag its feet, with lackluster implementation of the new sanctions authority Congress provided earlier this year under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act.”
On February 10, the Senate unanimously passed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 following a day of legislative floor action led by Corker. To date, no Chinese entities or individuals have been sanctioned under the new authorities provided by Congress. Click here for more information on the bill, which was developed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. [Sen. Bob Corker]
Well, partially. Let’s not forget to give Ed Royce his due credit for writing and passing the first version on the House side, but it’s also true that without the SFRC staff and Senator Gardner in particular, this bill would still be stuck in the House. Brokering the February compromise in the Senate must have been very difficult work indeed, given the complex Senate rules.
Clearly, the Senate committee staff have also noted the concerns I noted here. Now, the failure to designate Chinese entities by itself might be excusable — temporarily — if the administration simply doesn’t know where Kim Jong-un’s money is. That has become a hard defense to accept at face value, for reasons I explained in the previous link, and here. It would also be excusable if quiet diplomacy could immobilize the funds without needless unpleasantness, but although there are some hints that North Korean diplomats and overseas workers are under some financial duress, pretty clearly, most of those funds are not yet immobilized.
I continue to predict that the section 103 briefing is going to be tense and difficult for the administration. The odds of some very contentious election-year hearings increase with each new provocation from Pyongyang, and particularly if President Obama returns from Beijing empty-handed.
Have you ever heard the late Christopher Hitchens speak about his visit to North Korea, and how he promised himself that he would not use the “1984” cliche? “Eventually,” Hitchens said, “They make you do it.” I believe it was sometime around 2007 that I made the same promise to myself about the Hans Blix scene in “Team America” when speaking of the U.N.’s response to North Korea’s increasingly brazen behavior. It has become another cliche, but they also make you do it.
This week, Samantha Power went to the Security Council and said this:
The DPRK’s missile tests help it to threaten the territory of even more countries in the region, whether through its land-based missiles or now via its recently tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Once the DPRK has the capability to do so, we know what they intend to do with these missile systems, because they have told us. They are explicit: they intend to arm the systems with nuclear weapons. Kim Jong Un said this himself yesterday, according to the DPRK’s official news agency. [….]
The Security Council must remain unequivocal and united in condemnation of these tests, and we must take action to enforce the words we put on paper – to enforce our resolutions.
Meanwhile, at the State Department, words words words or something. At least the White House made a feint at meeting the test posed by Power’s last clause when it refused to rule out more sanctions, but there aren’t any signs that it means to impose any, either. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence, spokesman Josh Earnest (whose name is an oxymoron) said that the U.S. and China have worked “cooperatively in a coordinated fashion” to “steadily ratchet up” the pressure on North Korea. Unless Earnest really means that we’re cooperating with Beijing because we’ve capitulated to it, this is just more bullshit.
Despite the evidentiary and analytical challenges of calculating North Korea’s trade with China, the best evidence we have suggests that China continues to exploit the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports to prop up Kim Jong-un’s rule. Despite the importance of drawing distinctions between trade that feeds the North Korean people and trade that props up the regime, bilateral trade hasn’t fallen much overall, and the small decline may owe more to China’s sagging economy than to its enforcement of sanctions. To make up for the drop in the coal trade and falling prices, China is sending more tourists to North Korea and accepting more slave labor from North Korea, including those formerly employed at Kaesong. Beijing is also engaging in public displays of affection with Pyongyang to show how much more worried it is about South Korean missile defense than it is about North Korean missiles.
China’s recent purchase of North Korean fishing rights was unconscionable and inhumane. It took away a source of food that should fill the markets that feed North Korea’s poor, and replaced it with another source of unrestricted cash for the ruling class in Pyongyang. By doing so, it arguably violated the U.N. Security Council resolutions.
To state what should be obvious, Kim Jong-un is politically invested in his weapons programs and won’t change his behavior unless the world can unite to coerce that change. Evans Revere, a recovering engager whom I probably wouldn’t have cited approvingly a few years ago, is almost certainly correct when he says, “The only way to get North Korea’s attention is to put at risk the one thing that North Korea values more highly than its nuclear weapons. That’s the future existence of the regime.” Revere now concedes that positive incentives haven’t worked on Pyongyang, and with North Korea “rapidly improving its ability to deliver nuclear and other weapons toward specific targets accurately,” we can’t rule out the possibility that it “might seek to use nuclear weapons to blackmail one or more of its neighbors.” Well, yes.
Japan and South Korea are both calling for more sanctions to prevent this outcome, but it’s fairly clear that the Obama administration isn’t pushing for any, and is mostly concerned with avoiding any sort of crisis before it slinks out of town, after having wasted eight critical years. South Korea’s foreign and defense ministers will visit Washington in October to make their case for “specific measures” again. Seoul thinks this may be its last chance to prevent North Korea from reaching nuclear breakout and subjecting it to the slow strangulation of nuclear blackmail, and I suspect that they’re probably right about that. Hopefully, when President Obama met with President Park instead of the President of the Philippines, she made that case forcefully. Nothing less than South Korea’s survival as a democracy depends on it.
With our time quickly running out, the idea of settling for a piece of paper from the U.N. is madness. Although the U.N. statement hints at “significant measures,” a Japanese diplomat is quoted as saying that “many council members supported the idea of further measures,” but “fell short of a consensus.” So presumably, China continues to be unhelpful and obstructionist, the Obama administration continues to be weak and indecisive, and no further resolutions will be forthcoming until Pyongyang does something else, like another nuke test. And perhaps, not even then.
~ ~ ~
As for what sanctions we should impose now, I posted my own wish list in July. It includes:
(1) the designation of North Korean entities, such as Air Koryo, the DPRK Central Bank, and North Korea’s state insurance companies, all of which are facilitating sanctions violations;
(2) the closing of loopholes left over from UNSCR 2270, including the “livelihood” loophole for coal and iron ore exports; and
(3) new measures, including a ban on labor and food exports by North Korea, and a requirement to disclose beneficial ownership by North Korean nationals to the Panel of Experts.
In the case of Air Koryo, there’s no question that it flagrantly violates the luxury goods ban; journalists have tweeted photographs of huge flat screen TVs being loaded aboard its flights. The U.N. Panel of Experts has implicated Air Koryo in the proliferation of SCUD missile parts, and notes that the dual civilian and military use of some of its aircraft could itself constitute a violation of the arms embargo. The Panel of Experts has also noted that Air Koryo holds a number of suspicious debts to recently formed shell companies, implying that Air Koryo is involved in money laundering or sanctions evasion. According to South Korean press reports, Air Koryo is also used to ferry bulk cash to evade U.N. sanctions.
As for concerns that Air Koryo also engages in legitimate civilian business, I would respond that if Air Koryo were to be designated, third-country airlines would take over its routes, because Pyongyang needs to have air commerce of some kind. The same can be said of North Korea’s financial, shipping, and insurance industries. Pyongyang has repeatedly used all of these state-owned industries for sanctions evasion and proliferation. If those industries were sanctioned and shut down, then third-country airlines, insurers, ships, and banks — which would presumably have more incentives to follow the law — would take up the slack. That would make it much more difficult for Pyongyang to violate U.N. sanctions.
Above all, however, U.N. member states must be willing to use their national laws to impose secondary sanctions on entities — especially Chinese entities — that knowingly help Pyongyang violate U.N. sanctions. This is now a requirement under U.S. law, and I remain concerned that the Obama administration isn’t following it. Without secondary sanctions — and most critically, the strict enforcement of secondary financial sanctions against North Korea’s bank accounts in China and elsewhere — North Korea will find ways around the sanctions, because plenty of Chinese companies will be willing to help it find those ways. Are we serious about global nonproliferation, the security of the world’s most economically vital region, and the protection of the democratic system of our treaty ally in South Korea? I’m searching in vain for any evidence that we are.
The defection of North Korean Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho two weeks ago has tolled a ghoulish vigil in which bloggers, op-ed writers, and academics have speculated about the longevity of His Porcine Majesty. Some of them still read a long lifeline on his palm. South Korean President (and master troll) Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, sees “serious cracks” in the regime and says that the cohesion of the oligarchs is “collapsing.”
“The North Korean regime is taking no account of the people’s lives, while it oppresses the people with continuous rule by fear,” she said. “Recently, even the elite in the North is collapsing and high-profile figures are increasingly escaping their homeland and defecting to foreign countries. As the signs of serious cracks emerge, the regime’s instability is growing.” [Joongang Ilbo]
Park has several advantages over the rest of us. She probably has a good idea of what the seven North Korean diplomats who’ve defected this year — plus any other senior defectors we don’t know about yet, and those who defected in recent years — have said in their NIS debriefings. She probably has some idea of what the NIS found in their laptops and cell phones. Of course, it’s possible that she and the NIS are sexing up or spinning those reports, so the rest of us do what we do best — we speculate.
Christopher Green insists that Thae’s defection means “nothing” for the regime’s stability because Thae isn’t central to the regime’s power structure, other defections didn’t shake the regime’s stability before, and the psychological impact on the proles will be slight. Andrei Lankov acknowledges that the rise in high-level defections is significant, wisely doesn’t claim to know whether the regime will collapse in months or years, but less wisely, is very certain that the defections have nothing to do with sanctions. In an article that’s worth reading for its opening anecdote alone, Mark Fitzpatrick posits that “[s]uch defections reflect fissures in the regime,” but questions whether they “may also signal an impending regime collapse.” John Lee offers the most bearish interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s future, writing that North Korea “is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration.”
In no particular order: I share Lee’s hope, but not his predictive confidence. Green’s is a dangerously tendentious prediction for uncertain times, and as we’ll see below, it didn’t take long for events to supersede it. I can’t quite reconcile Fitzpatrick’s view with itself; a regime like North Korea’s can’t be both riven by fissures and stable. I’ll meet Andrei halfway and admit that multiple factors are probably contributing to the recent defections, including the fear of political purges, self-interest outweighing a decaying ideology, low pay, lack of confidence in regime leadership, concern for their children, the loss of income from sanctions and South Korean diplomatic pressure, and officials’ fears that Pyongyang will hold them responsible for the loss of that income or for the defections of colleagues. Other analysts and South Korean officials think sanctions are also a factor, and the coincidence of events suggests that they’re right:
Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.
Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.
“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.
Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.
“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]
But if much of the conventional wisdom still predicts stability, conventional wisdom has a poor predictive history.
[Everything is absolutely fine.]
Most experts thought the regimes in East Germany, Romania, Albania, Libya, and Syria were as stable as Lehman Brothers, right up to the moments when each of those “stable” regimes fell. Most Sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. Status quo bias is a powerful thing. The conventional analyst who predicts that the status quo will go on looks smart every day — until the day when he suddenly doesn’t. The unconventional analyst who predicts doom looks like a lunatic every day until the day when he suddenly looks like a prophet. The only day history remembers is that last one.
But prediction is a fool’s errand. Great events often start with infinitesimal and unpredictable ones — an official’s misunderstanding of an order, or the courage of one forgotten man in a crowd. Wise analysts do not predict such things. At most, they interpret a regime’s political and financial health from whatever vital signs are known. Once, the North Korean regime had a very strong political body. Since Kim Il-sung’s death, that body has decayed steadily. We don’t know enough to diagnose the disease or assess the progression of the atrophy, but defections by diplomats, like the desertion of soldiers, are contrary to the protagonists’ interests in normal times, and are not normal events. They suggest that the regime is unhealthy, but they are only symptoms. In North Korea, most of the vital signs are unknowable. Even then, they can’t predict when some infection kills a vulnerable host.
Sometimes, it is easier to alter the course of history than it is to predict it.
The view that comes closest to my own is that of Stephan Haggard, who thinks that the recent defections could cause a financial crisis, which could lead to regime collapse. Haggard points to reports claiming that some of the defecting diplomats and officials have taken tens of millions of dollars with them — amounts which may seem small by most nations’ standards, but which are indispensable to Pyongyang when it’s under rising pressure from U.N. sanctions, the loss of its Kaesong income, and complaints that its labor exports violate the rights of the workers. The reports, however, are anonymously sourced, and they’ve been inconsistent about what (if any) amounts the diplomats absconded with.
Whatever the amounts, however, I agree that these defections could cause a financial crisis in Pyongyang. I just agree for a different reason.
A North Korean diplomat stationed in Russia defected last month, a local source said Thursday, amid a series of defections from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.
The diplomat from Pyongyang’s trade representatives under its consulate general in Vladivostok could have possibly defected with family, according to the source who asked not to be named. [….]
The diplomat is known to have been in charge of covering trade issues while sending necessary goods back to North Korea, according to the source. [Yonhap]
Following Yonhap’s report, New Focus International confirmed what I’d suspected — that North Korea’s former trade representative in Vladivostok was not only a purchasing agent for Pyongyang but a Bureau 39 fund manager. Vladivostok isn’t in Europe, so I’ll assume he isn’t the same person as the Europe-based slush fund manager whose defection was also recently reported (perhaps that person was the Bulgaria-based diplomat referred to here). Another Moscow-based trade rep defectedin July. Then, there’s the recently reported defection in China of the man who controlled North Korea’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. All told, Seoul says at least seven North Korean diplomats have defected this year alone. Separately, “informed sources” have told Yonhap that ten North Korean diplomats defected in 2015, including another Bureau 39 fund manager based in Singapore. This doesn’t include the colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau who defected last year, the high-ranking North Korean banker who defectedtwo years ago, or the diplomat based in Ethiopia who defected in 2013.
Pyongyang’s response to the defections — recalling diplomats to punish them for the defection of colleagues, recalling the families of diplomats back to Pyongyang, dispatching more security agents to surveil diplomats, and reshuffling or recalling embassy staff — risks pushing other diplomats to the breaking point.
If most of these reports of defections are roughly accurate, the NIS, CIA, and Treasury probably have a more complete map of Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts, assets, and financial networks around the world than at any time in North Korea’s history. (Ironically, Thae Yong-ho, who was posted in the capital of a U.N. Security Council member and U.S. ally with a strong regulatory and legal system, may be the least likely of these men to contribute much to that map, beyond the financing of his own embassy.)
So far, the Obama administration has abstained from taking any public action to block those funds. Its increasingly apparent failure to do this has already attracted criticism in the media, and the more Kim Jong-unprovokes in the coming months, the louder that criticism will become. It’s certain to come up at a now-overdue briefing to Congress on the implementation and enforcement of the new North Korea sanctions law. The more attention Kim Jong-un attracts, the more likely it is that Congress will demand hearings on what Treasury has done to enforce the law. Knowing this should make some bankers very nervous.
I’m no expert, but I don’t see how this could be a coincidence.
A North Korean official managing money for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Europe has disappeared, raising speculation that he might have defected with a large amount of state funds, a local media report said Friday.
Citing anonymous sources, major local daily newspaper the Dong-A Ilbo reported that the official in charge of money management for the so-called No. 39 office of the Workers’ Party vanished in June. The office is known for running money for Kim’s regime.
The North Korean official is currently staying in an unidentified European country. He and his two sons are also under the protection of local authorities, the report claimed.
The media report, which has not been independently verified, said that he disappeared with hundreds of billions of won that had been under his management. He was reported to have worked in the same European country for the past 20 years. [Yonhap]
For those of you keeping track, in the last year, that’s one banker from Russia, one diplomat from Russia, a colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the number two guy at the embassy in London, and possibly the general who runs Pyongyang’s money laundering operations in Southeast Asia. For reasons I explained here, I also believe we know a great deal about the location of North Korean slush funds in China.
According to informed sources, 10 North Korean diplomats defected to the South last year, but the number had reached almost the same level in the first half of this year. Of these defectors, most came from the North’s overseas missions in Europe, with some coming from Southeast Asian countries. [Yonhap]
As I said about Thae Yong-ho’s defection: trends that can’t continue, don’t. By now, there can be little doubt that if U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are cooperating, they must know where a large portion (if not the majority) of North Korean slush funds are. Of course, the North Koreans will be scrambling to move that money today. As they do, nervous bankers around the world will be filing Suspicious Transaction Reports. Gleeful regulators will tent their fingers and cackle watching them make stupid mistakes. This is a rare opportunity — too rare to waste.
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.
On balance, I suppose Kim Jong-un probably prefers to see his foreign emissaries expelled than boardingKAL 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]
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 Ilboreported 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 Ilboclaimed 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.
In February and March, respectively, the U.S. Congress and the U.N. Security Council responded to North Korea’s fourth nuclear test with sanctions that were, in theory, an order of magnitude stronger than any sanctions imposed on North Korea until then. Sanctions, of course, are only as good as their enforcement, and in enforcing sanctions against North Korea, the most important rule has always been “follow the money.” Money — along with the contradictions of its political system — hasalwaysbeen one of Pyongyang’s main vulnerabilities. Much of that money sits in banks in China, Europe, and Russia. A sudden cutoff of those funds could shake the increasingly fragile cohesion and discipline of the security forces. It could also shake the waveringconfidence of North Korean elites in Kim Jong-un’s capacity to preserve their status, position, and survival. After an inevitable period of backlash, tension, and provocations, an insolvent dictatorship in Pyongyang would confront an existential choice to reform and disarm or perish.
Of course, confronting Kim Jong-un with that choice depends on getting Kim Jong-un’s bankers in China, Russia, and European states to comply with the new U.N. sanctions. Because China and Russia have voted for and subsequently violated U.N. sanctions resolutions for years, Congress concluded that a credible threat of secondary sanctions was necessary to make them enforce the resolutions. Section 104 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act requires the administration to block the slush funds that facilitate Kim Jong-un’s proliferation, arms trafficking, luxury goods imports, and human rights abuses, wherever those funds are found. The purpose of the law is to force the administration to cut off the funds that maintain Kim Jong-un’s regime, and to send a clear message to Chinese and Russian banks that the days of business as usual are over. Either they can do business with Pyongyang or New York, but not both.
Congress made those sanctions mandatory — barring the invocation of a presidential waiver in section 208(c), which must be reported to Congress — because had it lost patience with China, and because it had lost confidence in the Obama administration’s will to enforce U.S. law or U.N. sanctions against North Korea. The Obama administration has too a long history of letting Kim Jong-un off the hook for his most egregious conduct to be trusted. It did functionally nothing to sanction Pyongyang after its second and third nuclear tests, multiple missile tests, and two attacks against South Korea. It failed to list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism despite multiple attempts to assassinate dissidents and human rights activists, multiple arms shipments to Iranian-backed terrorists, and the Sony cyber terrorist attack against the U.S. homeland. It did nothing to the Chinese and China-based entities that hosted and enabled the North Korean hackers. Yet for years, despite the extensive evidence of China’s bad faith, the White House effectively outsourced its North Korea policy to China.
The administration has denied knowing where North Korea’s slush funds are, but those denials become harder to believe as the open-source evidence accumulates. For years, open sources have reported that U.S. and South Korean authorities had pursued and identified large amounts of those funds. A recent spate of high-level defections — yet another was revealed just today — has likely added to the U.S. government’s knowledge of those funding streams. Good journalism has done much to expose North Korea’s China-based money laundering. In the coming days, an extraordinary and little-known organization, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, will release a meticulously researched report, based entirely on open-source information, that will provide a ground-breaking expose of the North Korean overseas procurement networks. Any guesses which country they operate from?
But perhaps “ground-breaking” is too optimistic. Six months afterthe latest reportfrom the U.N. Panel of Experts, the administration still hasn’t sanctioned any of the dozens of third-country enablers of North Korean proliferation, smuggling, or money laundering named in that report. The Panel’s report added dozens of names to the long list of Chinese and China-based trading companies, middlemen, and assorted death-merchants to the list of those who’ve spent the last two decades helping Pyongyang buy, sell, and trade the instruments of proliferation and extortion. You won’t find any of them listed among this year’s designations by the Treasury Department.
The administration still hasn’t blocked Chinpo Shipping, which wasconvictedby a court in Singapore of facilitating North Korean weapons smuggling. It has taken no action against the Bank of China, whose local staff knowingly deceivedtheir U.S. correspondents — and may have brokenU.S. money laundering laws— by directing Chinpo to conceal any North Korean links to the shipment. It has not sanctioned Chinese ex-spy Sam Pa or his 88 Queensway Group fortheir dealings with Bureau 39(sanctioned by both Treasury and the U.N.) although it did sanction Pafor violating Zimbabwe sanctions. The same goes for the North Korean mining companies and their foreign investorsI found among the Panama Papers. UnderExecutive Order 13722, those companies and their enablers should be subject to sectoral sanctions. No action has been taken against any of them, either.
If the administration — despite the vast personnel, legal, and intelligence resources at its disposal — doesn’t have all of this information, that could only be because it isn’t trying to gather it. What seems much more likely is that the administration has decided not to act on it — on any of it. The fact that the Obama administration won’t act on the information it has makes it harder to believe its denials that it knows where Kim Jong-un’s money is. I have no way of knowing what Treasury knows on the classified or law enforcement sensitive level, of course, but Congress does. We’ll get to that at the end of this post.
~ ~ ~
Is the administration simply afraid of the diplomatic consequences of secondary sanctions against Chinese and Russian interests? Clearly not. Just two weeks ago, the Treasury Department designated and blocked a network of traders and trading companies that were helping the Syrian government’s arms procurement and proliferation. One of those traders was a Chinese national and two were Russian; one of the companies is located in Shenyang and one in Moscow. And of course, the Obama administration has directly sanctioned some of Putin’s top officials and financiers over Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine.
The administration can’t credibly claim that China deserves a pass because of its good behavior, either. Recently, China has turned sharply toward authoritarianism, anti-Americanism, and imperial hegemony over neighboring states and waters. It just blocked a toothless U.N. censure of North Korea over missile launches that flagrantly violated a decade-long series of Security Council resolutions by inserting poison-pill language objecting to South Korea’s improvement of its missile defenses.
Yet instead of accepting responsibility for selling North Korea missile technology and road-mobile missile carriers, among other items, China’s Global Timesblames the U.S. for the North Korean threat. Instead of sanctioning Pyongyang, Beijing is threatening Seoul with trade sanctionsfor having the temerity to want to defend itself from North Korea missiles. It has made a show of cozying up to North Korea and expressing its “significant differences” with the United States.It has even taken to bullying South Korea’s beloved K-pop artists. Korean conservatives are making an issue of this, as they should. Even the far-left, anti-American Hankyoreh Sinmuncalls China’s threats “petty.” Scott Snyder is probably right that in the end, this will hurt China’s own economic interests. That is to say nothing of the nationalist backlash it will inspire among Koreans. But the broader point is that China isn’t taking the gravity of this threat to U.S., South Korean, and Japanese security seriously. That’s all the more reason why China must share in the cost of the threat it has done so much to incubate.
I disagree with John Park and James Walsh on the role of sanctions as often as not, but they are right that for sanctions to slow North Korea’s proliferation, the administration must be willing to pursue and sanction North Korea’s procurement networks in China. They are also correct that weakly enforced sanctions, like half-doses of antibiotics, only serve to strengthen the disease’s resistance to the cure. It should go without saying that in attacking North Korea’s procurement networks, it may be necessary to sanction their Chinese enablers, too. But to go beyond merely delaying Kim Jong-un’s progress toward an effective nuclear arsenal, we must do much more — we must instill the fear of God in Chinese banks that hold (at least) hundreds of millions of dollars in North Korean slush funds, and that allow Kim Jong-un and his cronies to use those funds to maintain his hold over his military and security forces.
In the weeks and months following the imposition of U.S. and U.N. sanctions, I’ve seen and seized on hopeful signs that Chinese banks were freezing North Korean accounts, and that North Korean operatives have been unable to pay their debts. No doubt the administration knows things that I don’t, but these isolated reports still do not suggest that Pyongyang is in the early stages of a liquidity crisis that will confront it with the choice to reform and disarm or perish. Rather, absent more evidence that Treasury is serious about finding and blocking North Korean slush funds, those initial hopeful signs will fade away. It will be business as usual all over again, just as it was not long after Chinese banks brieflyfroze North Korean funds in 2013.
The fact that Pyongyang continues to sell coal and iron ore to China — in volumes that are increasing, not decreasing — suggests that Pyongyang still has access to bank accounts where it can deposit its coal and iron ore revenues. North Korea’s unsanctioned mineral exports are also rising. Because the mineral trade is under regime control, the fact that it is not directly sanctioned does not absolve China from the duty to ensure that revenue from this trade isn’t used to support Pyongyang’s WMD programs. The rise in this trade reinforces the likelihood that China’s banking industry is open for North Korean business. One South Korean expert opines that it also reflects a rising consensus among Chinese trading companies that China has lost interest in enforcing sanctions against Pyongyang.
~ ~ ~
Yes, the administration has taken the long-overdue step of blocking North Korean banks’ access to the financial system. Treasury’s regulation is still not final, and it still remains to be seen what effects U.S. and EU money-laundering blacklisting will have. On one level, the recent surge of defections suggests that the regime is under some financial duress, for some reason. Yes, the administration has designated Kim Jong-un by name for his human rights abuses, while signaling that this action is an entirely symbolic one. Those actions were commendable, so I commended them. But they were meant to be symbolic and much more. The administration must do more than name Kim Jong-un; it must find and freeze the billions of dollars he is not using to provide for his people. Whatever we are doing right, we can do it better.
Fortunately, Congress learned a lesson from the North Korean Human Rights Act: administrations don’t always want to enforce the law, so Congress must make them. When it passed the new sanctions law, Congress included numerous reporting requirements, including a requirement that the administration report to Congress 180 days after the enactment of the legislation on exactly what it has done to enforce the new sanctions. I wonder if the administration forgot about this. Congress hasn’t forgotten it. The time has come for Congress to ask for that briefing. I can think of some very detailed and specific questions the staff should ask about what the administration has done to follow the money. If the administration doesn’t have satisfactory answers, Congress should hold oversight hearings.
We are still in the early phases of implementing these new sanctions authorities. There is still time for sanctions to work, but we are also at the stage where China traditionally stops pretending to enforce sanctions and returns to business as usual. In Washington, the distractions of an election year present a high risk that the administration may prefer a quiet exit to stopping North Korea’s march to nuclear breakout. An administration that wasted eight years while the North Korean threat continued to build has not earned one last “era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays.” We are entering an era of consequences. The President must enforce the law. Congress must use its oversight authority to ensure that he does.
~ ~ ~
Update:Similar thoughts here, from the Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner. And I should note that this Time report from Dandong offers some contradictory (and more encouraging) evidence:
Sipping fruit tea in a Dandong café, Wang, the alias of a Pyongyang-born Chinese trader who speaks to TIME on condition of anonymity, describes how his business importing North Korean coal and minerals and exporting building materials has been eviscerated by the sanctions. “North Korean traders don’t have cash anymore,” he says. “I have to limit the amount of goods I sell to them on credit as the risk of default is so high.”
The report also says that refugees in South Korea have had an easier time sending money to their relatives back in North Korea. There’s nothing wrong with that, as long as Chinese banks enforce sanctions against the regime’s agents.
Like its neighbor, Namibia, Angola aligned with the Soviet block during the Cold War. The Angolan government and the Namibian rebel movement, the South West Africa Peoples’ Organization or SWAPO, received military assistance from Cuba, which had up to 60,000 soldiers near Angola’s border with Namibia during a vicious set of guerrilla wars in the 1990s. The Soviet Union is gone, but historic alliances can be persistent things, especially when those alliances also come with financial ties. This has certainly been the case with North Korea’s tiesto Namibia, which has been reluctant to shut down a North Korea arms factory on its territory, despite the fact that that factory is a clear violation of UNSCR 2270.
In April, I cited the 2016 Panel of Experts report and raised suspicions that Angola’s military cooperation was a violation of UNSCR 2270. Since then, Andrea Berger has done us all the service of pointing out where U.N. member states’ compliance reports are published online. Not surprisingly, Angola’s report raises more questions than answers. First, Angola admits that it is hosting two North Korean nationals, Kim Hyok-chan and Kim Kwang-hoon, who are under investigation by the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring compliance with the sanctions.
However, it must be noted that Kim Hyok Chan, a DPRK citizen born on 6 September 1970, carrier of diplomatic passport No. PD563410191, is on the list of individuals under investigation by the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009) and designated for targeted sanctions such as a travel ban and asset freeze. This individual holds multiple-entry visa No. 60000/MRX/16, valid until 2 February 2017, from the Angola Ministry of External Relations. The individual is a diplomat of the DPRK and entered the national territory on 14 February 2016 from Addis Ababa. [….]
Kim Kwanghoon, a DPRK citizen born on 9 June 1981 and carrier of passport No. M66430933, has an ordinary visa with the number 100866086/16, valid until 6 May 2016, and left the country on 5 May 2016, bound for Dubai, United Arab Emirates. The individual works for the Ofek Company. [Angola compliance report]
Neither man appears on the U.N.’s consolidated sanctions list, and neither is mentioned by name in the POE’s 2016 or 2015 reports. If there’s a list of persons under investigation published by the U.N., I’m not aware of it. Nor would it seem wise to publish a list of persons under investigation. I wonder if the Angolans just said more than they should have (oops). Then, Angola then takes the position that it’s under no obligation to expel either man.
Concerning the expelling of diplomats or representatives of the government of the DPRK or nationals of other countries suspected of helping to circumvent the sanctions regime, it was not necessary to expel any DPRK diplomat from the country, as they did not represent a threat to national security and were not outright affected by any of the provisions of resolution 2270 (2016). [Angola compliance report]
So, move along! Nothing to see here! Not quite. The resolutions have several provisions that require the expulsion of North Korean or third-country nationals. Not all of them necessarily require an individual by-name designation. Here’s a paragraph from UNSCR 2270:
“13.Decides that if a Member State determines that a DPRK diplomat, governmental representative, or other DPRK national acting in a governmental capacity, is working on behalf or at the direction of a designated individual or entity, or of an individual or entities assisting in the evasion of sanctions or violating the provisions of resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) or this resolution, then the Member State shall expel the individual from its territory for the purpose of repatriation to the DPRK consistent with applicable national and international law …. [UNSCR 2270]
So, if the Angolan government knows that Kim Hyok-chan or Kim Kwang-hoon is working on behalf of a designated entity, such as Green Pine (U.N. designated since 2012), Saeingpil (a U.N. designated alias of Green Pine), or KOMID (U.N. designated), the Angolans have to expel them, whether the individual people are designated by name or not. The apparent intent of the resolutions’ drafters was to allow either designation of entities (and by implication, their employees) or alternatively, the designation of individual bad actors whose affiliations aren’t clear or aren’t proven.
But is there any evidence that either man is working for a designated entity? In the case of Kim Kwang-hoon and his employer, Ofek, I found no additional information online. Ofek isn’t designated. Kim Hyok-chan, however, is another story. Let’s start with the 2016 Panel of Experts report.
108.The Panel investigated two incidents involving Green Pine (see S/2012/287): two deliveries in July 2011 of items for military patrol boats to Angola and an air shipment in February 2011 of submarine parts inspected in Taipei (see annex 1 and S/2015/131, paras. 81-83). The consignments were shipped from Vienna by an Austrian national, Josef Schwartz, through his company, Schwartz Motorbootservice & Handel GmbH. He had traded with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on multiple occasions in the past, including violations and attempted violations of the luxury goods ban. The Panel confirmed that he had assisted Green Pine in evading the arms embargo. [UN POE report, 2016]
That finding apparently has its origins in this interesting report on Saeingpil in the Washington Free Beacon, which alleges that Kim Hyok-chan works for Saeingpil.
The assistance includes marine engines and replacement parts for North Korean patrol boats sold to the Angolan military within the past six years.
Additionally, North Korean military trainers are providing arms and security support to Angolan presidential guards, according to recently obtained information on the transfers.
Similar military support to Uganda and Tanzania was ruled to violate U.N. sanctions by a United Nations panel of experts on North Korea.
According to the sources with access to details of the Angolan military transfers, a North Korean company, Saengpil Associated Co., currently is in the process of shipping engines and replacement parts for some of the 18 patrol boats that were built for the Angolans since 2011.
Saengpil is part of North Korea’s Green Pine Associated Corp., which has been sanctioned in the past by the United Nations. Both entities are part of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the North Korean covert action and intelligence organization.
The Saengpil representative behind the military transfers was identified as Kim Hyok-chan who has been working in Angola since 2008 and has been the lead official in charge of the arms deals between the two countries. Kim also is a second secretary at the North Korean embassy in Luanda, the Angolan capital.
North Korean agreements for the patrol boats date to August 2009, when Angolan technicians were trained on repair and maintenance. Construction of the patrol boats, described as PB 100s, began in March 2011. Renewal of the accord for repair and maintenance was concluded in January 2013. [Washington Free Beacon]
Nowhere does the Angolan report say whether its government investigated whether Kim is or is not tied to Saeingpil. You have to wonder if it ever occurred to the Angolans to, you know, ask him, or maybe review his immigration or banking records. If Kim works for one of those designated entities, Angola is required to expel him, regardless of whether he’s designated by name. Its non-response on that issue suggests that it’s playing fast-and-loose with the resolutions.
The report goes on:
Concerning Green Pine Pi’l Trading Corporation, also known as Saeng Pi’l Associated Company, and Beijing New Technology Trading Company, Limited, inquiries made did not uncover any new information, and the information provided in previous notes still prevails. [Angola compliance report]
My only reaction to this is, what the hell does that even mean? If Green Pine or Saeingpil has an office in Angola, the Angolan government is required to close it, end of story. Here’s the relevant provision from UNSCR 2270:
“15.Underscores that, as a consequence of implementing the obligations imposed in paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraphs 8 and 11 of resolution 2094 (2013), all Member States shall close the representative offices of designated entities and prohibit such entities, as well as individuals or entities acting for or on their behalf, directly or indirectly, from participating in joint ventures or any other business arrangements, and underscores that if a representative of such an office is a DPRK national, then States are required to expel the individual from their territories for the purpose of repatriation to the DPRK consistent with applicable national and international law, pursuant to and consistent with paragraph 10 of resolution 2094 (2013); [UNSCR 2270]
Next, Angola — which was so recently busted for making arms deals with Green Pine, and which hosts 1,000 North Korean workers, claims that it’s unaware of any North Korean bank accounts that it has to freeze.
Concerning the freezing of any funds, financial assets and economic resources of the DPRK that are deposited in foreign banks, as well as funds managed by entities linked to the Government or the North Korean Worker’s Party in Angola, the relevant institutions, including the ministries of Defence and the Interior and the National Bank of Angola, are surveying the situation regarding bank accounts and migratory status of citizens from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, as well as of DPRK collaborators working in the country. [Angola compliance report]
Most recently, Angola was in the news for hosting North Korea’s Vice Foreign Minister, who “defended Pyongyang’s dual pursuit of nuclear and economic development during talks with his Angolan counterpart.” This doesn’t inspire great confidence.
Finally, I expect to see some more interesting reporting about Angola’s links to North Korea in the coming weeks, but I’ll let someone else tell you that story.
In my policy discussions about North Korea, two of the smartest sanctions skeptics I’ve debated are professors John Park and James Walsh. Not only are they both genuinely nice people, their skepticism points to flaws and gaps in the sanctions regime, and that skepticism ultimately serves to improve the quality of the sanctions and their enforcement. They’ve been particularly persuasive about the importance of pursuing “North Korea Inc.,” Pyongyang’s extensive and shadowy network of agents and trading companies in China, who facilitate not only its legal trade, but also act as money launderers and purchasing agents for its WMD programs and luxury goods demands. Such is the nature of money laundering; it uses legal trade to conceal illegal trade.
One answer to Park and Walsh’s criticisms is to add one additional special measure, found at 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(2), to the special measures Treasury previously announced on June 1st. This measure would require financial institutions to collect information on the beneficial ownership of property by North Korean persons, or of property in North Korea. That would mirror the European Union’s recent blacklisting of North Korea for money laundering, which triggers increased beneficial ownership reporting rules.
Happily, I’m joined in this view by the most accomplished North Korea sanctions expert I know, William J. Newcomb, who previously served with the CIA, Treasury, State Department, and the U.N. Panel of Experts (here’s a link to an address Bill gave to the Korea Society). Today, Bill and I posted a public comment on Treasury’s proposed special measures against North Korean money laundering. You can read the full text of the comment below the fold, annotated with hyperlinks. It should also be available on the federal regulations portal shortly.
To read the full comment, click the “continue reading” button below.
It has been three months since 12 young women and a man defected from that North Korean restaurant in Ningpo, China, and since 100 North Korean workers in Kuwait staged a mass protest against their minders. I’d begun to wonder if the regime had cauterized the wounded cohesion of the very people it needs most desperately to pay its bills and seal its borders, but the drops of fresh blood on the floor tell another story. Let’s begin with the most painful — and potentially, lethal — loss.
Anchor: A general who was in charge of managing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s overseas slush funds is said to be in China after escaping from his country, and is seeking political asylum with two other North Koreans in a country other than South Korea. A source said that the three were separated from a diplomat from Pyongyang, who is seeking his own defection to another country. [….]
Report: It has been made known that a general escaped from North Korea and is seeking political asylum in a country other than South Korea. A source in China, who works in collaboration with Seoul government officials, on Thursday revealed the recent defection of the general, a diplomat and two others.The source said that the North Korean military officer was in charge of managing Kim Jong-un’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. [KBS Radio]
The general was on a business trip in China meeting with three other North Koreans when he and two others parted ways with the third, a diplomat, and slipped away and sought asylum in “a country other than South Korea.” The diplomat is reportedly still in China, making his own plans to defect. Why not South Korea? In a word, “Minbyun,” but that topic deserves its own post.
Also, ineradicable historical ignominy.
KBS notes that this is the first known defection of a North Korean general. Indeed, by my reckoning, it would be the highest-ranking defection from North Korea since Hwang Jang-yop defected in 1997. KBS had no further information about the two North Koreans who defected with the general, or about the position held by the diplomat.
The source said that the four North Koreans decided to leave their country due to their dissatisfaction with the Kim Jong-un regime and pessimistic views about the future of the country. [KBS Radio]
So. One of the men who knows the most about Kim Jong-un’s finances — and presumably, its sanctions evasion strategy — secretly despised His Porcine Majesty and is convinced that his regime has no future. As we speak, the CIA or another friendly intelligence agency may be debriefing him, filling Excel spreadsheets and databases with bank names and account numbers, copying all the numbers in his cell phone, and imaging his laptop. All of that information will be cross-checked against the intelligence windfalls we presumably collected from the Reconnaissance General Bureau colonel who defected last year; from Yun Tae-hyong of Daesong Bank, who defected in Russia in 2014; and from North Korean diplomat Kim Chol-song, who was last seen earlier this month at Pulkovo Airport in St. Petersburg with his family, as they boarded a flight to Minsk and points west.
When asked why they don’t block all of His Supreme Corpulency’s slush funds, Treasury officials have answered that since the great training exercise for North Korean money launderers known as Banco Delta Asia (thank you, Chris Hill) the North Koreans have diversified and hidden their funds, and there are no equally vulnerable “nodes” that can be blocked anymore. These defections may well remove that excuse, and because of new compliance rules imposed by Treasury and the EU, banks may hesitate to move those North Korean funds again. If properly exploited, that intelligence would send His Corpulency schussing down a steep slope to bankruptcy.
[As all the peace studies grad students know, sanctions never work.]
And in other North Korea defection news, three North Korean workers in Malta reportedly defected to South Korea last summer.
In response to the Yonhap report, the Ministry of Unification said it is true that there were North Koreans who defected from Malta to South Korea last year but there were no North Korean defectors from the island in 2016. “We cannot provide any further details on North Korean defectors as we are responsible for their security here,” a unification ministry official said asking not to be named. [Yonhap]
God forbid Minbyun’s “human rights” lawyers should demand the right to interrogate them in open court, too.
Also defecting this week was one of North Korea’s top math students, who slipped away from his minders in Hong Kong and into the local South Korean consulate.
An article from the Ming Pao newspaper claimed the defector is 18, and was participating in a recent International Mathematics Olympiad held in Hong Kong from July 6 – 16.
“We can’t verify that. Please understand the South Korean government can’t release information regarding defectors for their own safety and possible diplomatic disputes that might occur with the concerned party,” the South Korean Foreign Ministry said during a Thursday briefing.
According to the report the student is still inside the South Korean compound, and is heavily guarded with armed anti-terrorist units from Hong Kong’s police forces. [NK News, JH Ahn]
Interestingly enough, the North Korean team placed sixth out of over 100 teams from around the world. Despite that impressive performance, KCNA hasn’t said a word about the team’s performance this year — for some reason — although it reported last year’s results the very next day. I’ve often said that one of the saddest things about the grand tragedy of North Korea is the loss of so much human potential there.
Also joining the flight from the Workers’ Paradise are five armed North Korean soldiers who had abandoned their posts for the more lucrative business of robbing Chinese civilians, when they got into a lips-versus-teeth gunfight with Chinese police, seriously wounding several of them. The Chinese captured two of the soldiers, but three others are still at large.
The source who lives near the Sino-China (sic) border region told Yonhap News Agency that the two were part of a group of five who illegally crossed the border near the North Korean city of Hyesan last Saturday and robbed people living in two rural villages at gunpoint.
They were holed up at a house in the Changbai Korean Autonomous County when Chinese border guard and police tried to apprehend them early Thursday. In the ensuing gun fight the culprits were arrested, although three others got away.
The Chinese national police then said that several Chinese security forces were injured in the process with two detectives receiving serious wounds requiring them to be evacuated to a hospital in Changchun.
“Chinese authorities are chasing the three runaways and telling people to be extra careful,” the source said.
He said Chinese authorities confirmed the robbers were armed with guns and had ammunition, and were North Korean military deserters. The provincial government and security forces imposed a curfew at night to protect citizens. [Yonhap]
This incident appears to be unrelated to another defection by a border guard, reported by the Daily NK last week, in a different sector of the border.
“The border patrol soldier, based in Onsong County, North Hamgyong Province, escaped across the Tumen River on Wednesday (July 20) at approximately 4 p.m.,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China told Daily NK on July 22.
“The soldier is an unarmed male believed to be around 20 years old. He was spotted in Kaishantun, China–a town across the Tumen River from Onsong County, North Korea. China’s border patrol units were dispatched to the area after receiving a tip from a resident, but the soldier slipped away and his whereabouts are unknown.” [Daily NK]
If you’re wondering why a North Korean soldier would be desperate enough to do something so suicidal, read Rimjin-gang’s new report on the history of the North Korean military’s hunger problem, complete with clandestine photos of skeletal young soldiers begging passersby for food, or on their way to hospitals.
These reports are only the latest in a series of desertions, fraggings, and mutinies in the North Korean military that suggest that its discipline has come unglued, and is held together by nothing more than fear and food. Like the Ningpo and Kuwait incidents, group defections and mutinies tell us that disgruntled North Koreans are angry and desperate enough to share their views of the state and conspire against it.
In normal times, none of these things would be “in other news.” The times do not seem normal for North Korea anymore. What I’d give anything to know is whether these events mean that the regime can’t pay its bills and feed its soldiers anymore, and why. It wouldn’t be the first evidence of that kind we’ve seen in recent weeks. Surely this is the time when broadcasts to North Korea must send its soldiers the urgent message not to kill civilians, or each other. On this decision rests the future of all Koreans.
In yesterday’s post, I confronted two unwelcome facts: first, that Kim Jong-un almost certainly will not give up his nuclear arsenal voluntarily; and second, that we cannot learn to live with a nuclear North Korea (or more accurately, it will not learn to live with us). To these, I’ll add a third: things in Korea will certainly get much scarier over the next few years. Pyongyang is blaming sanctions for its own threats, but the inevitability of this crisis isn’t a function of our own policy choices; it’s a function of Kim Jong-un’s psychology, the mass psychology of a system addicted to threats of war, and the fact that as Pyongyang gains more confidence in its weapons, it will feel more freedom of action to provoke and extort without cost.
Ex-diplomats’ temptation to dialogue, while understandable on certain levels, is an exercise in futility at this point. (Of course, wenever really stoppedtalking to Pyongyang. Not that I necessarily object to talking. I object topaying.) Still, my question remains: if Pyongyang won’t disarm, what’s to talk about?
In yesterday’s post, I ruled out every diplomatic strategy for disarming Pyongyang except one — putting it under so much financial and political duress that its leaders realize that they must change or perish (and it’s much too soon to make effective use of that leverage now). Today’s post will start by answering Sahand Moaref’s question of why the U.S. government chose to sanction North Korea over human rights, thus diffusing what Moaref sees as a necessary focus on disarmament, and denying diplomats the flexibility to achieve a negotiated disarmament. There are two answers to this — a simple legal answer, and the policy reasons behind the legal answer.
The simple legal answer is that section 304 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act gave the President 120 days to make a public decision whether to designate Kim Jong-un for human rights abuses. Then, if the President found Kim Jong-un responsible, it was required to designate him and freeze his assets in the dollar-based financial system. State now says that its designation of North Korean human rights violators was years in the making. If that’s true, Congress was pushing against an open door, and the political consensus was already unanimous that there was no diplomatic breakthrough for such a designation to ruin. Still, that consensus went unrequited until three weeks after Congress forced State to say whether Kim Jong-un was responsible for crimes against humanity. Of course, there is only one correct answer to that question.
The reasoning behind the NKSPEA is that our diplomatic strategies — first, appeasing Pyongyang; then, ignoring it — were drifting over a waterfall. There was thus little risk in limiting the flexibility of diplomats to negotiate an agreement that wasn’t happening anyway, and that had little hope of success even if it did. Instead, Congress demanded a comprehensive policy for a comprehensive solution. The NKSPEA requires the President to apply all of our instruments of national power short of military force to coerce Pyongyang to end those behaviors that the U.S. and its allies cannot simply learn to live with. Congress also did something no diplomat has ever done — it told Pyongyang exactly what it must do to get sanctions lifted by writing suspension and termination conditions right into the law. (I’ll get to what those conditions are in a moment.)
To the drafters of the NKSPEA, of which I’m one, State’s negotiating strategy was hopelessly myopic. Its focus on the narrowest of disarmament objectives traded away nearly all of our leverage over Pyongyang to get transitory concessions on just one part of its nuclear program. Thus, that strategy made it more difficult to achieve a comprehensive solution to the greater Korean crisis. It bears repeating that the Korean crisis isn’t just about nukes — it’s about the chemical, biological, thermobaric, and conventional weapons Pyongyang regularly threatens to rain down on millions of South Korean civilians, and the missiles and artillery that would deliver those weapons. It’s about narcotics trafficking, insurance fraud, money laundering, international abductions and assassinations, the sale of weapons to terrorists, cyberterrorism against the U.S. homeland, and the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. It’s also about a system of repression and secrecy so extreme that it renders any disarmament agreement unverifiable.
Thus, by 1998, in pursuit of a freeze of North Korea’s plutonium program, the Clinton administration had lifted most trade sanctions against North Korea and continued to provide it aid, despite a growing body of evidence that it was cheating on the 1994 agreement by pursuing a uranium enrichment program. Both political parties are equally culpable here; by 2008, the Bush administration lifted most financial sanctions in exchange for one blown-up cooling tower and a few boxes of uranium-tainted papers.
Meanwhile, State never even began negotiations in earnest to disarm North Korea of its chemical weapons, biological weapons, ballistic missiles, or the conventional artillery it had aimed at Seoul and other South Korean cities.
By giving away so much so soon, Washington also damaged the cohesion of the most important diplomatic alliances we would need to achieve a lasting peace in the region. In 2007, for example, the U.S. turned its back on treaty ally Japan by removing North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism without having secured a meaningful commitment by Pyongyang to return Japanese abductees. That betrayal caused great controversy in Japan at the time, and it was still harming the U.S.-Japan alliance years later, when Japan cut a separate deal with Pyongyang for the return of the abductees.
Similarly, the Bush administration’s decision in 2007 to let Pyongyang ship weapons to Ethiopia was a clear violation of UNSCR 1718, a resolution the U.S. had just expended substantial political capital to secure. Allowing Pyongyang to violate that resolution squandered a global diplomatic consensus to limit Pyongyang’s arms dealing, which funds its WMD programs. To this day, the U.S. and South Korea are still expending diplomatic capital to get African and Asian states to comply with UNSCR 1718, and with the resolutions that followed it.
North Korea’s human rights abuses have long been a grave concern for many members of Congress, but since the 2014 release of a U.N. Commission of Inquiry report finding North Korea’s government responsible for crimes against humanity, that concern has resonated globally. The world is no longer prepared to give Pyongyang license to commit murder, rape, extermination, and starvation on a mass scale, nor should it be. And if State and Treasury had designated the leaders of Zimbabwe and Belarus for human rights abuses, they could hardly justify their failure to designate Kim Jong-un for far worse.
There are also sound political reasons why any agreement with North Korea must go beyond nukes. Iran continues to support terrorism and test missiles despite the Joint Plan of Action, and Congress isn’t just going to live with that; it will impose new sanctions in response to new evils. Support for terrorism and missile tests are unacceptable to Congress and to U.S. allies, regardless of whether Iran complies with the JPOA or not. These political and diplomatic realities explain why diplomatic solutions with rogue states must be comprehensive, even if comprehensive agreements are harder to achieve in the short term.
More fundamentally, negotiations are doomed to fail as long as Pyongyang continues to lie its way through them. Pyongyang has repeatedly reneged on its agreements, and we’d be fools to trust it again without compelling evidence that it is prepared to become a fundamentally more transparent society, whose commitments, actions, and adherence to the standards of basic humanity can be verified. How can we verify North Korea’s disarmament, especially now that it has admitted to having a more easily concealed uranium enrichment program, if Pyongyang continues to cage foreign aid workers in Pyongyang, miles from where the hungriest people are? Can we really monitor North Korea’s nuclear program if the vast areas that contain its political prison camps — including Camp 16, directly adjacent to its nuclear test site — remain off-limits to us? How could inspectors expect to hear candid answers from North Korean scientists, engineers, or laborers who live in terror of having their loved ones sent to those camps? A closed, terrorized, and opaque society with a long history of determined mendacity is fundamentally impossible to disarm. To be disarmed, it must first be altered or abolished.
Pyongyang, not Washington or Seoul, made the decision to engage in such a wide range of conduct that is unacceptable and offensive to us, to North Korea’s neighbors, or to civilization as a whole. If that breadth of evil complicates diplomacy, Pyongyang alone is responsible for that. If Pyongyang will not live by the basic standards of civilized humanity, it must live without the benefits of commerce with civilized humanity.
To Moaref, the expansion of sanctions leaves Pyongyang confused as to what it must do to get sanctions lifted. But today, no one in Pyongyang need wonder what they must do to get sanctions relaxed or lifted, because clear and specific goals and benchmarks are written into the law. Under the NKSPEA, sanctions can be suspended for a renewable period of a year if the President certifies that North Korea has done the following:
(1) verifiably ceasing its counterfeiting of United States currency, including the surrender or destruction of specialized materials and equipment used or particularly suitable for counterfeiting;
(2) taking steps toward financial transparency to comply with generally accepted protocols to cease and prevent the laundering of monetary instruments;
(3) taking steps toward verification of its compliance with applicable United Nations Security Council resolutions;
(4) taking steps toward accounting for and repatriating the citizens of other countries—
(A) abducted or unlawfully held captive by the Government of North Korea; or
(B) detained in violation of the Agreement Concerning a Military Armistice in Korea, signed at Panmunjom July 27, 1953 (commonly referred to as the “Korean War Armistice Agreement”);
(5) accepting and beginning to abide by internationally recognized standards for the distribution and monitoring of humanitarian aid; and
(6) taking verified steps to improve living conditions in its political prison camps.
(1) met the requirements set forth in section 401; and
(2) made significant progress toward—
(A) completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantling all of its nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons programs, including all programs for the development of systems designed in whole or in part for the delivery of such weapons;
(B) releasing all political prisoners, including the citizens of North Korea detained in North Korea’s political prison camps;
(C) ceasing its censorship of peaceful political activity;
(D) establishing an open, transparent, and representative society; and
(E) fully accounting for and repatriating United States citizens (including deceased United States citizens)—
(i) abducted or unlawfully held captive by the Government of North Korea; or
(ii) detained in violation of the Agreement Concerning a Military Armistice in Korea, signed at Panmunjom July 27, 1953 (commonly referred to as the “Korean War Armistice Agreement”).
If Congress agrees that the President has reached an agreement on some other acceptable terms, it can always amend the law, but a future President would be understandably reluctant to ask Congress to do this without bringing a very strong case to a future Congress. The North Koreans have burned us too many times to get another pass.
Note that these benchmarks do not necessarily require North Korea to become a fully “open, transparent, and representative” society, but merely to make “significant progress” toward one. This is not an end-state; it’s an abbreviated dialectic. The President could sign such a certification today with respect to any number of authoritarian states. As long as North Korea progresses toward transparency and openness, the President can continue to grant one-year suspensions of sanctions while our leverage remains in place.
Would North Korea view these conditions as political suicide? It agreed to many of them in 1953, so it’s hardly in a position to object to them now. Its agreement to progress toward becoming “open, transparent, and representative” depends how interested its leaders really are in developing their society and improving the living standards of their people. Until recently, U.S. and South Korean diplomats assessed that interest as high. North Korean propaganda still extols economic development as the half of its byungjin policy that isn’t fundamentally objectionable to the rest of humanity.
Whether Pyongyang would agree to this condition also depends on whether its leaders believe their own propaganda. That propaganda ceaselessly emphasizes how much the people adore Kim Jong-un, their single-minded pride and nationalism, and their belief that only a Supreme Leader can protect them from the packs of ravenous capitalists and carpetbaggers beyond the walls of their safe space. Some of the top officials in Pyongyang probably really do believe this, to varying degrees. Because human beings are individuals, and because individuals vary, some demographics in even the poorest regions of North Korea probably share it, too. I’ve met North Korean refugees who admit to having believed it themselves at one time. You don’t have to go all the way to Pyongyang to find experts who believe we underestimate the popularity of the regime, either: both Brian Myers and Andrei Lankov, who disagree with each other more often than not, have both said this at different times. Whether they’re right or wrong is mostly speculative; it isn’t even the point of the discussion. The point is that the leaders in Pyongyang might just believe it, or that they might, in a moment of sufficient duress, take the risk of believing the things they pretend to believe. But the state’s increasingly repressive policies also suggest its general recognition that many North Koreans despise the state’s exercise of totalitarian authority.
If a diplomatic solution is as unlikely as most people think it is, these conditions are probably moot anyway, and sanctions are merely one part of a broader strategy to either collapse the regime in as controlled a manner as possible, or to limit its capacity to threaten the world by putting it in something akin to international financial receivership. I’ll discuss the latter concept in the next post in this series.
It’s no secret that I’ve been a skeptic of “engagement” with Pyongyang from the very beginning, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Andrei Lankov. His Korea Times columns, his book, and his other writings on social, historical, and political matters have been so useful that I often cite them, despite his unrealizedpredictions or the silly things he occasionally writes. His view of engagement isn’t just the conventional approach of wheeling a catapult up the DMZ and flinging bundles of unmarked bills over the fence; Andrei also advocates more subversive and creative approaches that I also support. In a field with more than its share of pomposity, he’s humble, affable, and usually honest enough to admit when he’s wrong. He’s been to my house, and he’s still welcome. Our disagreements make for lively discussions. I hope that after what follows, he’ll still stop by. But on the specialized topic of sanctions, Andrei is in over his head.
In an interview with Radio Free Asia, Andrei seems very confident that sanctions aren’t working and never will. But as anyone who follows this story carefully knows, (1) the sanctions are only now being implemented, (2) as he eventually admits, sanctions need more than a few days, weeks, or month to work, (3) the evidence he cites is cherry-picked or unreliable, (4) he overlooks some promising signs that the sanctions are working, and mostly (5) he doesn’t understand the sanctions or how they work.
RFA: What has been the impact of the increased international trade sanctions against North Korea?
Lankov: I believe that four indicators show that the sanctions so far have not produced any significant impact. These involve declining grain prices in North Korea; a steadiness in exchange rates; only a minor decrease in the electrical supply in Pyongyang; and zero change in major North Korean construction projects.
U.S. and U.N. sanctions passed in February and March, respectively, and their implementation deadlines are only now coming due. For example, the U.S. can’t implement its designation of North Korea as a primary money laundering concern and cut off North Korean banks’ correspondent relationships until August 2nd, because 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(5) requires formal rule-making and a notice-and-comment period. Nor is it realistic to believe that we’d have found and frozen Kim Jong-un’s hidden slush funds just two weeks after designating him. The European Union only added North Korea to its own anti-money laundering blacklist last week, and Switzerland only enacted implementing regulations in May.
The deadline for nations to file their compliance plans with the 1718 Committee was June 2nd, but many African and Middle Eastern have yet to comply. In some cases, diplomatic pressure was necessary to secure that compliance. Our diplomats have years of hard work ahead of them.
RFA: The South Koreans have been urging some African nations to cut their ties with North Korea. Uganda said that it wouldn’t renew contracts for North Koreans who are training their military and police. Is this a significant development?
Lankov: Africa isn’t a major source of income for North Korea. Many more North Korean workers are employed in Russia and China—more than 40,000 altogether. And thousands of North Korean workers are employed in the Middle East, in countries such as Kuwait, the U.A.E., and Qatar. North Korea sells weapons to Middle Eastern countries with no questions asked, and these are countries that don’t worry about the human rights side of all this.
There are signs that diplomatic and financial pressure are impacting North Korean operations in Kuwait, Qatar, and othercountries. For reasons I explained here, if we’re smart, we’ll turn to China and Russia last. Each of these income sources is small by our terms, but important for some factions in the North Korean regime. All of these income sources must come under pressure for sanctions to work.
To give you some frame of reference, it took three years for the last key piece of sanctions legislation to crush Iran’s economy. Treasury declared Burma to be a primary money laundering concern in 2004; Congress passed tough sanctions in the Burma JADE Act in 2008; and global diplomatic pressure continued to rise until the government released Aung San Suu Kyi in 2010.
Andrei also overlooks a growing body of evidence that sanctions are starting to have an impact. Bureau 39 agents can’t pay their debts, which may or may not mean that Chinese banks froze their accounts. The regime is squeezing its overseas workers and diplomats so hard that some of them are defecting or mutinying. That, in turn, is causing Pyongyang to withdraw some of them and clamp down harder on others. A global diplomatic and human rights campaign is causing other states to send those workers home or stop granting visas to their replacements.
RFA: The U.S. and South Korea as well as human rights groups have called on other nations to stop employing North Korean workers, because many of these workers labor under harsh conditions and most of their income goes to the Kim Jong Un regime. Has this been effective in curbing the regime’s income?
Lankov: I would say that two thirds to three quarters of the workers’ salaries go to the state. But the remaining amount still makes these by far the best jobs that ordinary North Koreans can get. It might make sense to stop North Korea from making money from the income of these workers. But let’s not pretend that we’re helping these suffering workers by doing so. People pay bribes to get these jobs.
Just to remind you what Andrei is defending here, North Korean workers in his homeland toil 20 hours a day, only to have their wages stolen by the state or by their managers, and loggers who run away are literally hamstrung by their managers. Anyone who pays a bribe to get that kind of work has been deceived about what he’s getting himself into.
RFA: China agreed to the U.N.-sponsored sanctions. But do you see signs that China is doing enough to implement them?
Lankov: It’s unclear whether China is deliberately avoiding the implementation of some sanctions, but the participation of China is absolutely vital. One problem, however, is that relations between the U.S. and China are worsening. The Chinese will see no reason to help sort out what they see as essentially an American problem.
Russia turned in its compliance plan just last week — six weeks late and evidently written on a vodka-stained bar napkin. The entire report is one page long, a curiously brief submission for a nation that hosted the Ocean Maritime Management office that arranged the Chong Chon Gang arms shipment, which has invited North Korean nuclear scientists into its laboratories, which still allows designated North Korean companies to operate on its soil, and which has set up a ruble clearinghouse with North Korea as an obvious sanctions dodge.
The U.S., South Korea, and their allies must keep the pressure on Chinese and Russian interests. China isn’t a monolith. Its banks, ports, and government ministries have different interests, and therefore, different responses to sanctions. The critical decision we must make for sanctions to work is to threaten the interests of its banks and businesses that enable Kim Jong-un, and that need access to our markets and our financial system. They must be forced to choose between doing business with North Korea and doing business with the United States, or they’ll continue to choose both.
Even so, there has been a sharp decline in China-North Korea trade recently. Official statistics show declines in coal exports,overall exports, and North Korea’s trade with China. I’ll allow that we should treat these statistics skeptically. China’s economic decline and North Korea’s pathological ambivalence about trade could also account for this decline, although it’s noteworthy that bilateral trade actually rose in the first quarter of 2016 before falling sharply. Evidence of vacant office buildings, half-empty warehouses, and reports of disruptions to trade and banking relationships all suggest that there is some truth behind the official statistics. If these reports are accurate, Pyongyang’s financial situation will deteriorate in the coming months.
Yes, food prices in North Korea have remained mostly stable, and for the reasons I explained here, that’s good news. Sanctions do not target the food supply. So far, their targeting appears to be working as intended.
RFA: And if grain prices have decreased, isn’t this a sign that the sanctions were designed to spare ordinary North Koreans from suffering any more than they do already?
Lankov: The idea of selective sanctions—the idea that sanctions can spare the ordinary people—is a fantasy.
Evidence, please? Where, for example, is the evidence that the Banco Delta Asia sanctions caused suffering to ordinary North Koreans? The evidence of the pain they caused Kim Jong-il even a year after they were imposed, on the other hand, is difficult to deny. The argument is also contradictory — on one hand, Andrei argues that sanctions are failing because they aren’t starving the poor; on the other hand, he argues against sanctions because they will starve the poor.
Can we avoid all adverse impacts on ordinary North Koreans? Regrettably, probably not, and we should be ready to mitigate those impacts with food aid if necessary. But so far, I can cite more evidence that sanctions have improved North Korea’s food supply than Andrei can cite that they’ve strained it. Sanctions have prevented Kim Jong-un from exporting luxury food for cash; that food has been sold at a discount in the markets instead. Sanctions have also forced trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. Whatever adverse impacts sanctions may have, they’ll surely pale in comparison to the sanctionsKim Jong-un hasimposed on his own people by restricting market trade, cutting down private crops, confiscating and replanting private farms, and restricting cross-border trade.
As for that new construction, it’s largely supported by the use of forced labor. Its specific purpose, as RFA reports, is to persuade foreign observers that sanctions aren’t working.
RFA: When you mention electricity supply holding relatively steady, how can you measure this? Don’t electricity shortages vary from region to region in North Korea? And the North Koreans consider themselves technically at war. They’re big on camouflage, concealment, and deception.
Lankov: Studies at Stanford University have shown that under sanctions, the North Korean leadership can simply reallocate electricity from the countryside to the capital. Of course, they still face electrical shortages, as always. But the regime has to keep the elite citizens of the capital happy.
I’ve already fisked that study here. It did too poor a job of surveying the sanctions to establish a causal link to any condition inside North Korea. Nor did it account for any number of alternative explanations for its observations. In fact, a source I can’t name reports that since the sanctions were imposed, Pyongyang has had more hours of electricity than usual. For what it’s worth, my source speculates that that’s because Pyongyang is using coal it can’t export to generate electricity at home.
RFA: There’s a long history of sanctions not working in a number of cases, but they did work against South Africa.
Lankov: Sanctions against South Africa worked because it was a democracy. They had to take into account what their own people were thinking. Sanctions don’t work when a leader can ignore the views of the common people, which is the case with North Korea … Sanctions worked in Iran because while the system is twisted and lacking in many ways, they do have elections and some accountability. They do have to listen to public opinion. Sanctions do not seem to work well against an isolated country.
Wait, apartheid was democracy? This certainly would have shocked the non-white South Africans I knew there in 1990! I lived just west of Johannesburg for a few pivotal months in South African history, four years after the passage of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, three months after the release of Nelson Mandela, and just as F.W. DeKlerk began repealing the apartheid laws.
Legally speaking, by the way, North Korea and South Africa sanctions have as much in common as elderberries and Fruity Pebbles. The CAAA was a dog’s breakfast of symbolic gestures (banning Krugerrands) and protectionist goodies (banning sugar, iron, and steel imports) unworthy of the just cause it was meant to serve. It never invoked the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, even in its paleozoic pre-9/11 form, never blocked South African government assets, never cut its banks’ access to the financial system, and politely warned P.W. Botha to move his government’s money from U.S. banks to, say, Switzerland within 45 days.
Four years after those sanctions took effect, my anecdotal impression of South Africa’s economy was that it was stagnant but functional. The impact of the sanctions was mostly psychological, but powerfully so. Sanctions didn’t wreck the South African economy, but they did persuade the white minority that the world was closing in. All oligarchies are sensitive to that perception, even if North Korea’s one percent has fewer ways to express that. The preponderance of the evidence suggests that the world will soon begin to close in on Pyongyang, too.
If you pushed Andrei, I suspect he’d be honest enough admit that he’s not a sanctions expert, and that he’s really arguing his policy opinions. This isn’t to say that only experts can craft reasonable conclusions and arguments in specialized topics. I’m no expert on missile defense, so for this post, I consulted two people who are. I can’t say for certain how many of the relevant resolutions, statutes, or executive orders he’s read (I tried to ask him, but he’s traveling). Sanctions are a specialized field. Not every generic “North Korea expert” qualifies as a sanctions expert.
I raise this point, despite some hesitation, because most generic North Korea experts spent the last two decades repeating — and most journalists spent the last two decades printing — the myth that North Korea was the world’s most heavily sanctioned country. Legally, this was nonsense, and anyone who had bothered to research it could have questioned it, but it supported the inference that “tough” sanctions had failed. Maybe people repeated this because it supported their policy arguments. Or, maybe they’d heard so many people say it that they didn’t bother to check.
Now that this myth has been mostly debunked, sanctions are a hot topic again. Ironically, some of the same “experts” who got the sanctions story wrong for years are still being quoted as experts in the newspapers. I don’t mean to pick on Andrei here. Jenny Town is a lovely human being and, as far as I know, a fine arms control expert. Joel Wit is such an experienced diplomat that every time he talks North Korea into disarming, someone asks him to disarm it all over again.
Still, maybe it’s time for those reporters to expand their rolodexes to keep up with the times. William Newcomb, David Asher, Juan Zarate, George Lopez, Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, Peter Harrell, Martin Uden, Andrea Berger, and Joseph DeThomas all have expert-level knowledge of sanctions law or experience in sanctions administration at the national or international level. These aren’t all people I agree with, but they know more than the people who’ll read their opinions in the papers. That’s the least that any journalist should expect of an expert.
To work, sanctions will need good faith compliance by U.N. member states and time. Gaining international support and time, in turn, will require governments to put theirdiplomaticmuscle into the fight. As Ambassador Mark Lippert said recently, “sanctions aren’t just a short-term game.”
Yet some supporters of engagement policies, many of them people who never understood sanctions and still don’t, are ready to declare sanctions a failure at the starting line. The policy fiasco they backed wasted decades and billions of dollars, and I have yet to hear one of them cite a single significant, positive change engagement achieved. This is not to say that all would keep digging us deeper into that hole. Evans Revere, for example, now wants to make North Korea “stare into the abyss,” and I suppose he should be commended for yielding to the evidence. James Hoare confesses that “after 40 years,” he is “rather bored with it all.” The views of Chris Nelson and Daniel Pinkston have quite obviously shifted, too. As Andrei admits elsewhere, Washington’s consensus has shifted toward support for sanctions, at least for the time being.
But to the bitter-enders who want to go back to these failed appeasement policies now, and who measure success in terms of designer shoe sightings in Pyongyang, how many decades must pass, how many billions must we spend, and how many nukes will Pyongyang have before it opens a Jimmy Choo’s? How many North Koreans must die before we see the changes and reforms they’ve spent decades promising us? Engagers demanded endless patience with their Sisyphean fiasco, yet beat the drumof fierce urgency to pressure President Obama into Agreed Framework III. Now, they call on us to abandon sanctions before we’ve even begun to turn the screws. I’d like to borrow a cup of chutzpah from these people.