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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
The U.N. Security Council was already meeting about how to respond to North Korea’s latest missile tests when Pyongyang drew the curtain on its next act of satellite theater at Punggye-ri. Even without the latest sanctions, His Corpulency would probably have carried out another nuke test within the next year, if only to help consolidate his rule, and because the U.S. and South Korea are holding presidential elections. (North Korean dictators prefer to nuke off as new administrations assemble their policies and policy-makers.)
With this year’s new rounds of U.S. and U.N. sanctions, that already high likelihood became a near certainty. We knew all along that the North Korea crisis would have to get much worse before it can get better, and we’re still one to three years of aggressive implementation away from concentrating the igneous temperature and metamorphic pressure needed to make Pyongyang reconsider its policies. We should expect an interesting year, and we should have a list of options ready for it, rather than let a crisis go to waste.
[You should definitely skip over that part around 1:44.]
Fortunately, the most important legal authorities are already in place. If we did nothing for the next year but fully enforce UNSCR 2270, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, and the Obama Administration’s two most recent executiveorders, we could still identify and destroy most of the financial network that sustains Kim Jong-un’s misrule. This isn’t to say that new sanctions couldn’t help close loopholes; it just means that the most important priority has shifted to enforcing the sanctions that are already in place. So with much of our Plan B now in place, the effort now shifts to enforcement and the closing of loopholes. Call it “Plan B-plus.”
For the U.N.
Designate, designate, designate: You know who still ferries banned luxury goods into North Korea? Air Koryo, that’s who.
This guy is checking in a serious TV – a 65″ Sony Bravia – on today’s Air Koryo flight from Beijing to Pyongyang pic.twitter.com/KegglgjBUa
Who insures Pyongyang’s smuggling fleet? The Korea Shipowners’ Protection and Indemnity Association, which is probably a subsidiary of the infamous Korea National Insurance Corporation (which the EU has already designated, but we haven’t). Chinpo Shipping still isn’t designated despite having been convicted for its part in smuggling arms from Cuba to North Korea. All of the ships controlled by the (already designated) Reconnaissance General Bureau should be designated individually, by IMO number. The U.N. can also ban North Korea’s provision of crew services to foreign flagged ships.
The Central Bank of the DPRK sells gold — which is mined with forced labor, or in concentration camps — in violation of UNSCR 2270. Sam Pa and the 88 Queensway Group are already designated for violating Zimbabwe sanctions, and Pa is being prosecuted in China and has his bank accounts blocked, but a new North Korea designation for his dealings with Bureau 39 would send an important message by double-tapping a target the Chinese government is willing to sacrifice. Kumgang Economic Development Corporation, also known as KKG, is Pa and 88 Queensway’s North Korean business partner and, reportedly, a Bureau 39 front. They should be designated, too.
Korea Rungrado General Trading Corporation and the DPRK Chamber of Commerce rent out North Korean slave laborers. If we have any evidence that they pass their revenues to Bureau 39 (already designated), those entities should be designated, too. Mansudae Overseas Projects Group partnered with U.N. designated KOMID at that weapons factory in Namibia; it should be added to the blacklist. So, for that matter, should the Mansudae Art Studio, for the revenue it sends to Pyongyang by charging highly inflated sums for monstrosities such as these.
[Also, for crimes against humanity.]
Expulsions of North Korean operatives. In the last three years, the U.N. Panel of Experts hasnameddozens of North Korean operatives working around the world who have yet to be designated. Designating them would force other countries to deport them. Similarly, Treasury’s designations of North Korean smugglers and money launderers are still years behind the excellent work of the U.N. Panel of Experts. There are dozens of names in those reports that ought to appear on the U.N.’s own blacklist, and on ours.
Ban Labor Exports. I have a Y chromosome, so admitting that I was wrong isn’t easy for me, but I’m ready to admit that my first impression of Samantha Power was wrong. Just a few years ago, in blog posts and speeches, I taunted Ambassador Power by saying, “Samantha Power, North Korea is your Rwanda.” But since then, Ambassador Power has won me over. She has emerged as a calm, tough, steady, and effective diplomat and critic of Kim Jong-un’s crimes against humanity. She has also become an intelligent advocate for better sanctions enforcement. Power may yet end her term with as strong a legacy as the much-maligned John Bolton, whose tough bargaining built the foundation for everything the Obama Administration has achieved since. Maybe Power still can’t persuade China and Russia to refer His Porcine Majesty to the International Criminal Court, but she might get them to support sanctions that shut down North Korean practices that have human rights implications, or that earn it enough cash to resist the pressure to reform and disarm. After all, isn’t this what the Security Council did when it banned luxury goods imports in UNSCR 1718? The message then was that North Korea should provide for its people. It was the closest the U.N. has ever come to an effective response to Pyongyang’s failure to protect them. In the same sense, China and Russia might be pressured into agreeing to ban North Korean labor exports, if only because labor exports almost certainly finance proliferation.
Ban Food Exports. There is no excuse for a country that relies on food aid to simultaneously export food for hard currency, while contributing a relative pittance to importing grain to feed its own malnourished children. North Korea’s apologists reflexively predicted that sanctions would only starve the poor, but there is more evidence that the very opposite of this is true. This year, we saw two interesting dynamics when China began to implement UNSCR 2270. First, luxury foods (seafood, pine mushrooms) that Pyongyang usually exported but now couldn’t suddenly became available in North Korean markets for the first time most North Koreans could remember. (Limits on North Korean coal exports had a similar effect; they lowered the market price of coal, and according to sources I can’t attribute here, are credited for a better electricity supply in Pyongyang than at any time in recent memory.) Second, state trading companies that needed to earn cash to make their “loyalty” payments but found it harder to trade in sanctioned goods began shifting toward importing food into North Korea instead. Both of these dynamics suggest that a ban on food exports from North Korea could draw more food into the markets that feed most of North Korea’s people and actually help ameliorate the food crisis, while denying Pyongyang a key source of hard currency. Given the long-standing failure of U.N. aid programs to solve North Korea’s food crisis, it’s time to turn our attention to those markets, rather than the state’s corrupt and discriminatory distribution system, as a better solution to hunger in North Korea.
Define “Livelihood Purposes.” The “livelihood” loophole is UNSCR 2270’s most obvious shortcoming. It’s a loophole in coal and iron export sanctions that you can drive a freighter through. The exception should not be terminated completely; sanctions need safety valves so that member states can react to unintended consequences. Instead, the U.N. should define “livelihood purposes” to exclude any sale of coal that provides hard currency to His Porcine Majesty.
The term “livelihood purposes” means the sale or export by the Government of North Korea of coal, iron, or iron ore in exchange for food, medicine, or other humanitarian supplies to be imported into North Korea under the auspices of the United Nations World Food Program, and subject to adequate safeguards to ensure the distribution of such food, medicine, and other humanitarian supplies in accordance with the humanitarian needs of the North Korean people.
SWIFT. Really, how hard an ask should that really be at this point? North Korea is a prime suspect in the theft of $80 million from SWIFT member banks after hacking SWIFT’s software. If we were to ask the EU to support a new sanction disconnecting North Korean banks from SWIFT — and crucially, any other financial messaging services — would it really push back?
Oversight. Congress’s most important function now is to make sure the Executive Branch enforces the laws Congress has already passed. The “appropriate congressional committees” should reserve a SCIF for regular briefings from the Treasury, State, Commerce, and Homeland Security departments. The Executive Branch already has most of the authorities it needs to enforce sanctions effectively. I could, of course, draft many pages of text to force the Executive Branch to use those authorities (and just for shits and grins, I have).
Tourist Travel. But again, that isn’t to say that new legislation wouldn’t help. With North Korea effectively using two Americans as hostages, it’s long past time to ban transactions incident to tourist travel to, from, and within North Korea. Ideally, this could be done by U.N. resolution, but let’s not pretend that that’s likely this year. Doing so bilaterally would require an act of Congress, which means that it’s not going to happen until after Election Day, at the very soonest. (Sometimes, the mills grind slowly. It took three years for the NKSPEA to become law, but it still happened.) Although such a ban would be far from airtight, it would inflict significant financial pain, and it would reduce Pyongyang’s supply of American hostages. It also has the potential to affect not just travel by Americans, but any dollar-denominated travel transactions, including those by third-country nationals. Pyongyang increasingly relies on those transactions to remain solvent as sanctions take effect.
For the Executive Branch
Progressive diplomacy. When it comes to North Korea, I’m not widely known for commending the work of diplomats, but this year, I think we’ve gotten the sequence mostly right. We started with our friends. The U.S., South Korea, and Japan began 2016 by papering over their historical differences and forming an effective diplomatic alliance. Seoul and Washington have had the discipline and the foresight to reject Pyongyang’s divide-and-rule appeals for talks. Maybe it has finally occurred to them that the longer they stick together and build pressure against Pyongyang, the stronger their bargaining power will be, and the greater the odds that their diplomacy will actually succeed for once.
Seoul also invited European nations into that alliance and turned wavering states into friends. It has done an admirable job of unplugging the HAL 9000. Each chip unplugged allows Seoul to focus its attention on a diminishing list of enablers that reflag Pyongyang’s ships, buy its missiles, rent its slaves, and launder its money. The U.S. may have played some role in assisting that campaign, but if it has, it hasn’t publicized it. Similarly, the EU and Japan have been cooperative, but haven’t led on sanctions enforcement as they led on human rights at the U.N. We have yet to see the Obama Administration undertake anything that compares to the Bush Administration’s campaign of financial diplomacy, which quickly disconnected so many of North Korea’s financial links to the Outer Earth. Maybe that’s about to change. If the U.S., South Korea, Europe, and Japan join forces to pare North Korea’s enablers down to a few stubborn bitter-enders, those bitter-enders will feel increasingly isolated, North Korea’s money men will be increasingly exposed, and secondary sanctions against the worst of them will meet less international blowback.
But this act could be much more than symbolic. According to open-source reports, Kim Jong-un keeps billions of dollars in slush funds abroad; estimates vary from as low as $1 billion in Switzerland, Austria and Luxembourg to as high as $6 billion overall. Top North Korean official Ri Su-yong allegedly managed some of them in Switzerland, and also served in The Netherlands and Liechtenstein, where Pyongyang allegedly kept some of its money. Ri still has close family ties to Bureau 39. Switzerland has recently committed to cooperating with sanctions against North Korea and enacted new regulations to implement the sanctions. The Treasury Department may have also identified hundreds of millions of dollars in North Korean accounts in Shanghai, including the names of the account holders. The 2014 defection of Yun Tae-hyong of Korea Daesong Bank may have provided the South Korean NIS another windfall of financial intelligence.
New EUregulationsblacklisting North Korea for money laundering require the disclosure of accounts’ beneficial owners will illuminate more slush funds. Although a top Treasury Department (now the CIA’s Deputy Director) stated in 2013 that Treasury was “actively looking for” “very large amounts” of North Korean money, Treasury offered a disappointing lack of commitment to pursuing those slush funds when it announced its recent designations of Kim Jong-un and his top henchmen. The designation of Kim Jong-un and North Korea’s security forces can be more than symbolic. Nothing the U.S. can do would do more to open up North Korean society to the Outer Earth than to starve the security forces of the funds they need to fence the borders, pay border guards, and buy cell phone trackers. Nothing would damage regime cohesion and Kim Jong-un’s image more than working with foreign governments to identify and freeze the proceeds of Kim Jong-un’s kleptocracy, a specific sanctions authority Congress gave the Treasury Department in section 104(b) of the NKSPEA.
Secondary shipping sanctions. With worryingsigns that Chinese ports’ compliance with UNSCR 2270 is slipping, it’s time for the U.S. to take a closer look at Section 205 of the NKSPEA, which provides for secondary shipping sanctions on non-compliant ports. U.S. Customs and Border protection could start by publishing a watch-list of the ports that are allowing North Korean ships to dock, and that aren’t inspecting all North Korean cargo. Cargo coming from those ports, in turn, will face additional delays as they face increased inspections in U.S. ports. My watch list would include Bayuquan, Dandong, Dalian, Longkou, Nantong, Penglai, Rizhao, Shanghai, Qingdao, and Yingkou, and the Beijing Capital International Airport in China; Abadan, Bandar-e-Abbas, and Khorramshahr, in Iran; Nakhodka, Vanino, and Vladivostok, in Russia; and Latakia and Tartous, in Syria. The administration should also harness the Proliferation Security Initiative to target non-compliant ports for closer inspection globally. That’s an important protection against whatever the North Koreans might be tempted to slip into a shipping container coming to one of our ports. The U.S. and South Korea should also redouble their efforts to end the prohibited reflagging of North Korean ships.
Investments. Although Executive Order 13722 bans new investments in North Korea, it doesn’t necessarily ban the existing ones. One step toward squeezing investment out of North Korea would be for the Securities and Exchange Commission to require any company — including foreign companies — that issues securities in the U.S. to disclose its investments in North Korea. That would expose those investors to boycotts, shareholder protests, and possible sanctions. Another, which I’ll explain in greater detail in an upcoming post, would be to require the disclosure of beneficial ownership in investments in North Korea, or in which any North Korean person has an interest. Here, the EU’s tighter rules on beneficial ownership disclosure, just announced this week, are a good example for us to emulate.
Fortunately, most of the necessary legal authorities are in place. If we did nothing for the next year but fully enforce UNSCR 2270, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, and the Obama Administration’s two most recent executive orders, the U.S. could cripple North Korea’s palace economy in two to three years. The distraction and potential disruption of the upcoming U.S. and South Korean elections are the greatest threat to this strategy now.
Last week, the Leiden Asia Centre made headlines around the world with the release of its exhaustive, 115-page report, “Slaves to the System,” on North Korea’s overseas labor arrangements and how those laborers are treated. The Leiden report coincides with new diplomatic efforts by the U.S., South Korea, and now, the International Labor Organization to bring those arrangements to an end.
The Chosun Ilbo reports that the U.S. government “is preparing a series of reports on the abuse of North Koreans who toil for the regime overseas or have fled abroad, as well as abuses within the isolated country,” to be submitted to Congress by mid-August. Those reports, in turn, are required under section 302 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which requires as follows:
SEC. 302. STRATEGY TO PROMOTE NORTH KOREAN HUMAN RIGHTS.
(a) In General.—Not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Secretary of State, in coordination with other appropriate Federal departments and agencies, shall submit to the Committee on Foreign Relations of the Senate and the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives a report that details a United States strategy to promote initiatives to enhance international awareness of and to address the human rights situation in North Korea.
(b) Information.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—
(1) a list of countries that forcibly repatriate refugees from North Korea; and
(2) a list of countries where North Korean laborers work, including countries the governments of which have formal arrangements with the Government of North Korea or any person acting for or on behalf of that Government to employ North Korean workers.
(c) Strategy.—The report required under subsection (a) should include—
(1) a plan to enhance bilateral and multilateral outreach, including sustained engagement with the governments of partners and allies with overseas posts to routinely demarche or brief those governments on North Korea human rights issues, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea;
(2) public affairs and public diplomacy campaigns, including options to work with news organizations and media outlets to publish opinion pieces and secure public speaking opportunities for United States Government officials on issues related to the human rights situation in North Korea, including forced labor, trafficking, and repatriation of citizens of North Korea; and
(3) opportunities to coordinate and collaborate with appropriate nongovernmental organizations and private sector entities to raise awareness and provide assistance to North Korean defectors throughout the world.
The Obama Administration is starting with bilateral diplomatic appeals to “ramp down” existing labor arrangements rather than terminate them abruptly. Adding to the administration’s powers of gentle persuasion is the veiled threat of sanctions.
“The (executive order) includes the authority to target North Korea’s exportation of labor in order to provide Treasury the flexibility to impose sanctions and ratchet up pressure as needed. At this time, we are closely studying the issue,” said Gabrielle Price, spokeswoman for the State Department’s Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. [Reuters]
U.S. sectoral sanctions in the new Executive Order 13722, promulgated to implement the NKSPEA, block the property of any person found to “to have engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for the exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.” Those sanctions can reach funds that pass through the U.S. financial system.
Although the reports are required by an Act of Congress, and although the State Department had never devoted much attention to this issue until the NKSPEA deadlines approached, the administration insists that it has always intended to make human rights issues a higher priority. For what it’s worth, I believe this really is true of some administration officials, but that the administration’s broader policy was paralyzed by internal divisions until Congress settled the argument for them at the eleventh hour. You can hear those divisions reflected in this unauthorized bit of State Department snark:
[O]ne State Department official described it as in large part an effort by the Obama administration to counter charges that it has been weak on other human rights fronts, including Saudi Arabia, China, Bahrain, Vietnam, and Iraq. This official said the move was not expected to have any effect on the regime’s behavior and was largely “a legacy move” by the Obama White House. [….]
However, John Sifton of Human Rights Watch defended targeting Kim, saying talks were dead. “This is an area where the administration is not acting politically or cynically,” he said. “They are actually trying to do the right thing.” [Reuters]
The good news is that the right officials sound determined to continue investigating abuses and adding names to the SDN list. The bad news is that there are just seven months left in this administration — enough to do some damage, but not enough to devote resources to a sustained investigation.
South Korea is also joining the campaign, following itspromising reportsfrom Africa andCambodia, whose Prime Minister has promised to “reconfigure ties” with Pyongyang. Yonhap reports that, after a meeting between the South Korean and Qatari foreign ministers in Seoul last week, Qatar has “has been limiting the issuance of new visas to North Korean workers.” Significantly, South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se also “called for Qatar’s continued interest in the human rights situation of North Korean laborers in the Middle Eastern nation.”
Although U.N. Security Council resolutions do not directly ban the use of North Korean labor, the same argumentI’ve made against Kaesong applies equally well to the income Pyongyang generates from labor exports, and the potential for that income to be used for WMD programs.
Qatar, the site of the 2022 World Cup, has received bad press about its use of North Korean laborers recently. Earlier this year, two North Korean workers defected in Qatar, although subsequent reports have not clarified whether they escaped. At the time, a hundred North Korean workers mutinied in nearby Kuwait. They were repatriated on special Air Koryo flights.
Oh, and Foreign Minster Yun also asked his Qatari counterpart “for his support for South Korean firms seeking to participate in various infrastructure projects in Qatar ahead of” the World Cup. Nothing wrong with that, I guess.
If Qatar follows through on the promise, and if the North Korean workers’ visas expire soon, this could be yet another significant diplomatic win for South Korea. Qatar is one of the largest users of North Korean labor. Yonhap estimates that there are 2,000 North Korean laborers in Qatar; The Wall Street Journal puts the number at 1,800 in this excellent graphic:
Radio Free Asia, citing an unnamed source, says that “[t]he number of civilian workers sent to Kuwait has dropped from about 4,000 last year to approximately 3,200” as of last month. Since then, Pyongyang has increasingly sent active duty military personnel to replace them, perhaps because soldiers are more obedient than the increasingly restive civilian workers.
The soldiers, all in their 20s and belonging to engineering battalions in North Korea, are employed by the Middle East-based North Korean construction firms Namgang and Cholhyun, the source said.
“So far, the Namgang Company has dispatched about 800 North Korean [soldiers] as laborers to Kuwait and about 750 to Qatar,” he said, adding that the Cholhyun company too has “steadily increased” the number of soldiers it has sent to work in Kuwait since its first deployment of 70 soldiers in 2010.
“Almost 30 percent of North Koreans now working in Kuwait are soldiers on active service,” he said.
North Korean authorities tell the soldiers sent to the Middle East to grow their hair long to disguise their identity, RFA’s source said.
North Korea’s growing use of soldiers as laborers sent abroad to work may be due to their readiness to quickly obey orders and to work without pay during their period of service overseas, he said.
The soldiers are “feisty and aggressive,” though, and are resented by North Korean civilian workers for sometimes taking their jobs, he said.
“The ordinary laborers call the soldiers ‘Makhno’—a Russian word meaning ‘reckless gangsters’—and avoid all contact with them,” he said. [RFA]
Under pressure from bad press and (so I’ve been led to believe) back-channel U.S. diplomacy, Poland is also said to have stopped issuing new visas for North Korean workers.
Mongolia, another major user of North Korean labor, is also coming under pressure from U.S. and South Korean diplomats, and from the International Labor Organization.
North Koreans are hard-working and cheap to hire, said a labor broker for construction companies in Ulaanbaatar. He said North Koreans typically earn around $700 a month but receive around $150-$200, with the rest withheld by their government. Human-rights researchers cite similar figures.
One North Korean construction worker who moved to Mongolia in 2011 said he worked 12 to 14 hours each day. He said his pay had been reduced due to an economic downswing and he hadn’t been able to send any money to his wife and daughter in Pyongyang for a year. [Wall Street Journal, Alastair Gale]
In 2011, the BBC reported that North Korean workers based in Ulaan Bator were making “Designed in Scotland” clothing for the Edinburgh Woolen Mill. At the time, a British factory manager defended the arrangement, saying, “They’re hard workers. They don’t complain and they get stuck in. They’re quite skilled.” A British tabloid subsequently reported that he had left the company.
The WSJ also reports that North Korean “doctors” in Mongolia are peddling quack medicines, as in Tanzania:
After diagnosing a patient with a liver ailment, he recommended a $100 course of injections with medication that North Korean state media says can also be used to treat viral diseases such as Ebola and AIDS. “Yes, it really works,” he said.[WSJ]
Below the fold, an excerpt from Secretary of State John Kerry’s remarks in Kiev last week, while meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. Kerry was asked about sanctions against His Porcine Majesty, and answered this way:
In Wednesday’s post, I wrote about Beyond Parallel’s imagery analysis pointing to a decline in cross-border trade between China and North Korea, along with the limitations of that analysis and its great potential if expanded and focused. But I also alluded to a broader policy concern about the error of equating trade volume with sanctions enforcement: that while China’s under-enforcement of sanctions has historically been the greatest impediment to our North Korea policy, sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. Recently, I’ve heard influential people — including recovering engagers, preaching with the zeal of converts — advocating what sounded like a total trade embargo. (To be clear, Beyond Parallel’s study did not advocate this.) This would be inhumane, misguided, and politically unsustainable. It would play right into the regime’s hands by validating its disinformation and strengthening the arguments of its apologists.
The greatest long-term danger to an effective multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy is a loss of political will by one or more key nations. Pyongyang’s overhead is lower than that of most states because it doesn’t provide for its people, so breaking even one key nation out of a multilateral coalition can allow Pyongyang to get by for a year or two while it cultivates its next divide-and-conquer ploy. In South Korea and Europe in particular, public support for strong enforcement is vulnerable to charges — almost always made of lies, half-truths, ignorance, and appeals to emotion — that sanctions harm only the ordinary people. (And in the case of, say, old-fashioned trade sanctions against Iraq, the charge was mostly true. Many people who still don’t understand financial sanctions and who don’t know they don’t understand are still stuck in this paradigm.)
To maintain political support for such a multilateral sanctions enforcement strategy long enough for that strategy to work, policymakers must answer those charges, because people who are either sympathetic to the regime or myopically focused on aiding a tiny minority of its people are certain to lodge it, and shallow thinkers in the press are certain to echo it.
Thus, policymakers need more than just a sanctions strategy. They need to understand how sanctions complement other tools within a broader policy, and how all of those tools combine to achieve a plausible outcome. And to sustain any of it, they need an information strategy for answering these predictable arguments.
First, they must keep pointing out exactly how many North Koreans Kim Jong-un could feed with what he has instead chosen to spend on nukes, missiles, weapons, yachts, palaces, ski resorts, armored limousines, flat screen TVs, and … I could go on.
Second, they must emphasize their principled insistence that sanctions must only be targeted against the income sources the regime uses to buy all of these things instead of food. They must avoid unforced errors like this one at all costs. They should move quickly to identify and correct adverse and unwanted impacts from sanctions. Both the U.N. Security Council resolutions and U.S. sanctions law have provisions and general licenses for that purpose.
Third, they should point to what Pyongyang itself is doing, for the sake of its own internal control, to inhibit private agriculture, domestic market trading, and cross-border consumer-level trade. Those activities probably keep most North Koreans alive today. What almost no one is saying — and more people should be saying — is that Pyongyang’s sanctions against its own people are causing far more harm than international sanctions against Pyongyang itself. The latest example of that is this report that His Supreme Corpulency has ordered the planting of trees on private farm plots that probably grow a substantial portion of North Koreans’ food supply.
After Kim’s declaration, the government started to enforce laws against slash-and-burn farming all over North Korea. However, this is a matter of life and death for ordinary people. Consequently, last year, as long as trees were not cut down, in return for bribe, agriculture officials looked away if a person was cultivating short crops. Since then, the writer of this article confirmed that many farmers have given up slash-and-cut agriculture, though tree replantation is yet to take hold. [….]
“They wouldn’t allow us to go near our fields in the mountains. If we planted something, they’d pull it out of the ground. I recently planted potatoes, and they pulled them out. It was growing well…….” [Rimjin-gang]
Fourth, leaders should say more about how quickly and easily Pyongyang could end its quarter-century-long, man-made food crisis with a few bold policy decisions. For one thing, it could stop exporting so much of its food production for cash. This practice has even yielded some evidence that sanctions have actually improved North Korea’s food supply, by barring the exports of mushrooms, seafood, and other delicacies for cash, and forcing trading companies to shift from sanctioned trade to non-sanctioned trade in food. (My suggestion for the next round of U.N. sanctions? A ban on food exports.) North Korea could solve its short-term hunger problem in 30 days by halting food exports, and by choosing to import more food and less swag. Sanctions would do nothing to interfere with any of that. It could end its long-term hunger problem in less than a year with land reform that redistributes land to the tillers, and by ending the confiscation of private farms.
Finally, they should quietly pressure U.N. aid agencies to reassess well-meaning but flawed aid policies that haven’t addressed North Korea’s food crisis and may be prolonging it. Aid will never help more than a tiny percentage of North Korea’s population as long as the regime continues to inhibit aid workers’ access to the hungry. What North Korea needs is fundamental land reform and a change in its government’s priorities.
A strategy for enforcing sanctions, then, must be both coordinated and calibrated to hurt the right people and not the wrong ones. China’s role is obviously critical here. No one should want China to impose a blanket trade embargo on North Korea, because a blanket trade embargo will affect commerce that fills the markets and sustains the majority of North Koreans, and this will erode the political and diplomatic unity of a sanctions enforcement coalition. In the long-term, starving the North Korean people will discredit the use of sanctions to starve the regime.
On the contrary, it would be far better to open the taps on street-level jangmadang trade and hinder only the trade that exclusively funds the regime. Over time, the effect of this would be to deny the military and security forces a steady income and force them to turn to corruption to survive. This would catalyze more smuggling and more defections. It would mean more copies of “Descendants of the Sun” on sale in the markets. The good news is that the early signs suggest that since sanctions have taken effect, corruption has increased among the internal security forces and railroad police, and that the flow of refugees into South Korea has increased, although there still isn’t enough evidence to identify a pattern in these reports or assign a cause to them.
Still, these reports suggest how cutting the regime’s funds and blocking its accounts would preferentially impact the elites and break down their cohesion to the regime, starting with its financially critical overseas workers and trade agents, and progressing to those who maintain the system of internal security. It would force the regime to launch ever more mass mobilizations and confiscatory demands for “loyalty” payments that sap Kim Jong-un’s domestic political support among the poor.
Collectively and gradually, these trends would accelerate an ongoing shift in North Korea’s internal balance of power downward in North Korea’s songbun system, from generals to donju, from border guards to smugglers, from party members to non-members, from soldiers to sotoji farmers, from police to market traders, in every village, factory, and neighborhood. Only when Pyongyang realizes this will it realize that time is not on its side. And only when Pyongyang realizes that time is against it will diplomacy stand any chance of lasting success. If it doesn’t, and consequently drowns in the tide of history, that would be far from the worst possible outcome.
About a week later than my prediction in this post and a full decade after it should have done so, the Treasury Department has finally designated His Porcine Majesty, ten of his worst henchmen, and nine government agencies for human rights abuses.
“Under Kim Jong Un, North Korea continues to inflict intolerable cruelty and hardship on millions of its own people, including extrajudicial killings, forced labor, and torture,” said Adam J. Szubin, Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.“The actions taken today by the Administration under an Act of Congress highlight the U.S. Government’s condemnation of this regime’s abuses and our determination to see them stopped.”[….]
OFAC designated North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.Under the rule of Kim Jong Un, North Korea remains among the world’s most repressive countries, with significant restrictions on the exercise of fundamental freedoms and serious human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and torture.Kim Jong Un leads the Ministry of State Security and Ministry of People’s Security.These ministries, along with the Ministry of People’s Security Correctional Bureau and the Ministry of State Security Prisons Bureau, are also being designated today pursuant to E.O. 13722 for having engaged in, facilitated, or been responsible for an abuse or violation of human rights by the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea. [Treasury Department]
The targets include the State Security Department (kuk-ga anjeon bowi-bu), the North Korean equivalent of the Totenkopfverbände that runs the concentration camp system; the Ministry of People’s Security (inmin boan-bu), the Gestapo equivalent that investigates political crimes; and two sub-bureaus of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, for kidnapping North Korean refugees from China and for sending hit squads to assassinate exiles in South Korea. The full list is here, and below the fold.
Separately, the State Department issued a report on the reasons for the designations. With yesterday’s action, 161 North Korean entities are designated, equal to the number of designated Zimbabwean entities. Contrary to another rumor I heard but did not publish, there were no waivers of any of the sanctions.
Legally, the targets’ assets are now blocked in the financial system, the practical meaning of which I’ll address below. Because the designations were triggered by the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, strict performance-based conditions apply to their suspension or termination. The designations came several weeks after the passage of a deadline in section 304 of the NKSPEA to report to Congress on the individual responsibility of North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un, for human rights abuses in North Korea, and to designate any responsible officials under section 104(a).
Although the report and designations were effectively mandated by an act of Congress, senior administration officials stressed in a background-only conference call yesterday that this report was actually years in the making. Well, maybe. The first rumors the administration circulated publicly about this action came in 2015, a year after the House of Representatives passed the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act on a voice vote. So while I take the administration at its word — in part, because it’s useful to accept even reluctant new friends into the circle of consensus — it’s also true that whenever the administration began working on this report — which comes to four whole pages of Times New Roman 12-point type — it must have known that the legislative writing was on the wall.
At the same time, the State Department report provides more detail about the people responsible for crimes against humanity in North Korean than any other report has before. A great deal of intelligence work obviously went into it. Among the details we learn is that Kim Jong-un was born in January of 1984, which means he wasn’t even 30 the first time he sat on his double-wide throne. The State Department also appears to have used the discussion of the Reconnaissance General Bureau in “Arsenal of Terror” as a source for two of the designations. That discussion, in turn, cites Joseph Bermudez, to whom I express my gratitude again here.
So, what does all of this mean, practically?
Direct Financial Impact. Many reporters, who denigrate the potential impact of these sanctions, make two arguments, one false and one true. It is almost certainly false that Kim Jong-un has no assets “in” the United States. Again, that assumption flows from an ignorance of how international banking works, as I explained it here. As the U.N. Panel of Experts reports have demonstrated again and again, North Korean regime funds continue to flow through our banking system via correspondent accounts, where those funds can be frozen or forfeited (see 18 U.S.C. 981(k)). The real trick is identifying which funds are North Korean. One of our best sources of information is the banking industry, but banks won’t report North Korean wire transfers to their American correspondents as long as they continue to get away with concealing those funds, as the Bank of China did recently.
It is true that there is no single golden vault in Geneva with Kim Jong-un’s name engraved on the door, whose combination can be changed overnight. But the same was true of Bin Laden, Qaddafi, Assad, Milosevic, Mugabe, Lukashenko, and countless drug lords. The work of tracing and identifying assets down to the aliases, fictitious names, front companies, shell companies, and bagmen who hold those accounts is what the Treasury Department does, and does well. It will take years of hard work, and it will require a strong signal to the banking industry about their Know-Your-Customer obligations. One shortcoming here is Treasury’s failure to invoke Special Measure Two in its otherwise commendable Patriot 311 designation of North Korea. That special measure would require banks to gather information about North Korean beneficial owners of accounts. As the Panama Papersshowed us, that’s key information regulators need to embark on a serious assets hunt. I’ll be posting a detailed public comment to that effect, in response to Treasury’s 311 Notice of Rulemaking, before the August 2nd deadline.
What I did not see in the transcript of the senior administration officials’ background discussion with reporters was any commitment to devoting the necessary investigative resources to the pursuit of those assets. That will be an important oversight function for congressional staff in the coming years.
World Opinion. First, these actions could — I repeat, could — help further galvanize both domestic and world opinion against Kim Jong-un’s regime, which will itself have a range of secondary effects.
Wavering states that now supply Pyongyang with much of its income will face more pressure to distance themselves from it. Governments will face greater domestic political pressure to comply with existing U.N. sanctions, especially if that domestic pressure is combined with sweeteners brought by visiting South Korean diplomats. They will face greater pressure to vote for resolutions condemning North Korea at the U.N. Here are there, governments may begin to follow Botswana’s lead and cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang entirely. China, which opposes the new sanctions, will see North Korea as a greater diplomatic liability than ever. South Korea, which welcomed the new sanctions — and certainly would not have even a year ago — could make use of it in its skillful and increasingly effective diplomacy to isolate North Korea from the overseas funding that sustains the regime in Pyongyang.
The consensus among liberals in both Europe and America will shift. That consensus once generally favored engagement; it will now shift toward sanctions and accountability, as evidenced by Congressional Democrats’ support for much tougher sanctions. The description of Kim Jong-un as “a sadistic dictator” in a draft of the Democratic Party platform suggests that a Clinton presidency would be at least marginally tougher than Obama’s.
This will have financial effects in the near term. Governments and companies will be more reluctant to use North Korean slave labor, a subject that also made headlinesyesterday with the launch of the second part of the Leiden Asia Center’s report, “Slaves to the System.” Corporations will hesitate to invest in North Korea and risk boycotts by customers, or protests by shareholders.
After two wasted years since the release of the Commission of Inquiry’s report, I now sense that the world is closing in on Kim Jong-un, and that time is not on his side. The critical question is when that sense will take hold in Pyongyang.
Opinion Inside North Korea. I have heard the word “symbolic” used to describe this act; I’d raise that to “powerfully symbolic,” with regard to a regime that devotes arguably more attention than any other on earth to the cultivation of symbol and myth. Word of this action will spread through the jangmadang, where it will erode some of the regime’s key narratives. The regime, of course, tells the people how much Kim Jong-un cares for them. This act specifies precisely how his men torture, rape, and murder them. Few North Koreans can be ignorant of those crimes, but some must cling to the idea of “if only Kim Jong-un knew.” But this will also contradict the more subtle and powerful “Barrel of a Gun” narrative that America is weak, cowed, and in awe of North Korea, and that any North Korean who feels aggrieved is isolated and forgotten by the world. This action may open more minds to the true cause of their suffering, and to the hope of liberation. It could shake the smug confidence of officials in Pyongyang. In that sense, Congress’s latest move to direct the clandestine distribution of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Commission of Inquiry Report, and their own nation’s constitution is a powerfully subversive one.
Could word of this action cause some North Korean officials to modify their behavior? The answer is as complicated and variable as the psychologies of the men — they are almost always men — who compose such evil systems. Hitler and Goebbels killed themselves as final acts of defiance. Himmler killed himself as a final act of cowardice, but only after negotiating the release of thousands of Jews to try to mitigate his own guilt. Kaltenbrunner, a key executor of the Holocaust, took the stand at Nuremberg and matter-of-factly inculpated everyone, including himself. Streicher was brought to trial, sullen and defiant until he was hanged. Goering put on an agile pro se defense, then took cyanide the night before he was to hang. Speer expressed remorse, if not quite convincingly. And in July 1944, as it became clear that the war was lost, a collection of mid-level officers very nearly killed Hitler and overthrew the whole Nazi government. We’ll probably see similar variations in the behavior of North Korean officials one day. And we should be prepared to extend clemency to those who are willing to bring this nightmare to an end with a minimum of bloodshed.
Ten years ago, the idea that a North Korean prison camp kommandant would have heard that his name was on a blacklist would have been unthinkable. Today, that that same kommandant will find out is almost inevitable, particularly if his children call from Shanghai to tell him that the bank account is frozen. Those named in yesterday’s action will now feel that their backs are against the wall, but given what these men have done, they were bitter-enders anyway. As with Himmler in the closing days of World War Two, some will still feel pressure to mitigate their brutality for the sake of their own skins. Whether each man feels that the regime is likely to survive will be important to how each man acts. Men who feel untouchable will go on with their dirty work, and those who feel the hot breath of the hangman will begin to think about accountability.
By tomorrow, expect an epic rant from KCNA. Expect the regime to respond with provocations. Those provocations will be a testimony to the symbolic power and subversive potential of what happened yesterday. The crisis in North Korea will have to get worse before it gets better. It will only get better when the regime feels metamorphic, existential pressure to change. Yesterday’s action was a step toward building that pressure.
This week, there has been much talk and excitement about a new study, by the new blog Beyond Parallel, analyzing satellite imagery of six select sites along the Chinese-North Korean border, and finding evidence of a recent decline in bilateral trade. From this, the study concludes that China may be (as Josh Rogin paraphrases it for The Washington Post) “Beijing has been quietly punishing Kim by cutting off the flow of funds to his regime.” Here are the study’s two main findings:
First, the satellite images indicate a substantive reduction of economic activity on the Sino-North Korean border measured by the fewer trucks, trains, and boats in the February 2016 image compared to a similar timeframe in 2015. [….] In the aftermath of North Korea’s January 2016 nuclear test, this observed downturn in activity was comprehensive across customs areas, railway, and road traffic.
Second, the images also suggest that independent Chinese actions were taken to reduce trade in this region after the nuclear test and prior to China’s signing on to UN Security Council Resolution 2270. These findings run contrary to some estimates that Sino-North Korean trade (particularly Chinese exports) increased in the first quarter of 2016, and might confirm large anomalies in trade data as reported by China’s customs statistics, KOTRA (Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency), and other organizations.
The study is interesting and data-driven, and every North Korea-watcher should celebrate the launch of any new information source that promises this kind and quality of analysis. What’s more, by analyzing the volume of traffic at multiple sites over several months, the study is less vulnerable to the regime’s manipulations than the satellite theater that is almost the only good reason to read 38north (the contributions of J.R. Mailey and Andrea Berger being two other notable exceptions).
It’s especially tempting to feel triumphal about Victor Cha’s conclusions that China has taken “unilateral measures to drastically curtail trade interaction along their border,” and that China is “squeezing [North Korea] more than we were led to expect.” Still, the evidence and my objectivity restrain me to say, “Not so fast.”
First, there is also substantial evidence that China is still violating key provisions of the sanctions to prop North Korea up. North Korea’s most important export by reported volume is coal, followed by other minerals, and as NK News’s invaluable Leo Byrne has noted, the trade in sanctioned minerals continues. To some extent, North Korea has shifted its coal exports to other avenues, including Alibaba.com. At the land border, trucks loaded with titanium are still crossing into China. Worse, North Korean ships that have been specifically designated by the U.N. are still operating, and in some cases, are coming very close to Chinese ports they aren’t even supposed to approach. Then, their transponders go dark. This suggests that those ships are either landing in Chinese ports or off-loading their cargo onto smaller vessels without landing. Both alternatives violate UNSCR 2270.
Second, the kinds of commerce that benefit the regime most (as opposed to market trade that benefits the North Korean people) aren’t easy to measure with satellites. North Korea’s other lucrative exports include gold, weapons and weapons and technology, and labor. Its most essential imports include bulk cash, wire transfers, gold (again), and luxury goods that come in on Air Koryo. It probably also earns significant revenue through tourism. These are not things that can be measured by counting railcars.
Third, the study focuses on overland trade but tells us little about maritime trade. If the authors of the study want to improve the utility of this project — and I emphasize that it’s potentially a very valuable one — it should also examine maritime traffic to and from the key North Korean ports of Nampo and Sinuiju. Maritime trade is more likely to be under the control of, and to the immediate benefit of, the regime. It should specifically look for trade in bulk cargo like coal, imports and exports of fuel, and the movement of designated ships (it’s possible to match IMO numbers from transponders with satellite images).
Fourth, there may be other explanations for Beyond Parallel’s observations. I’ve long felt that Korea-watchers were far too trusting of officially reported statistics on China’s trade with North Korea, and the case of China’s fuel exports to North Korea illustrates just how easily China can manipulate those statistics. But to the extent we believe those stats, they do show a significantdeclinein North Korea’s exports over the last six months. The problem with attributing this to sanctions is that this decline extends a trend that we began to observe earlier, particularly in the mining industry. In fact, at Benjamin Katzleff Silberstein has pointed out on several occasions, this decline in trade volume has a closer correlation to the decline China’s economy than it has to sanctions. An interesting question is whether China’s own internal market controls, including its restrictions to prevent capital flight, may be playing a role, but that question is beyond the depth of my knowledge of economics (anyone? Bueller?).
Other potential causes of a decline in bilateral trade include regime-driven trade and travel restrictions leading up to the party congress in May, and problems with North Korea’s infrastructure, such as the partial collapse and subsequent repair of the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge last October. (The effects of this may or may not have ended before Beyond Parallel’s study began.) That would also help explain why the study found that trade began to decline before U.N. sanctions were increased in March.
Finally, we should not hope for China to enforce sanctions in unilateral ways that depart from the strict letter of the U.N. Security Council resolutions, whether by under-enforcing or over-enforcing sanctions. The main reason sanctions haven’t worked thus far has been — and continues to be — China’s under-enforcement of sanctions. That is why Congress decided that secondary sanctions were necessary to force China to comply, by dividing the interests of China’s fundamentally hostile government from those of its more pliable banks and industries, which need access to American markets. But what we don’t always realize is that sanctions over-enforcement is an equal danger. This veers off onto a long tangent, so I’ll save it for tomorrow’s post.
Earlier this week, when a senior Namibian official who had defended her government’s military cooperation with North Korea showed up in Pyongyang, I conceded that she could be there to terminate that cooperation, but didn’t assess that possibility as very likely. But yesterday, the Namibian government announced it was ending its joint projects with North Korea, including a North Korean-run arms factory, to comply with new U.N. sanctions:
“The Government of the Republic of Namibia, in fulfilling her international obligations to abide by UN Security resolutions, has decided to terminate the services of KOMID and MOP in Namibia, for as long as the UN Security Council sanctions against the DPRK are in place,” the statement read. [NK News, Hamish Macdonald]
Presumably, this is the work of good diplomacy by someone, although I couldn’t tell you who. Africa had become an important arms market for North Korea in recent years — and continues to be —but with the Namibian announcement, it’s clear that diplomatic efforts to get African countries to terminate their military relations with North Korea are gaining traction. Seoul has publicized its efforts — including outreach to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania — but Washington hasn’t publicized its own, perhaps for perfectly sound reasons, and perhaps because they’re non-existent.
One point that comes through clearly is that the threat of secondary sanctions is a part of why countries that ignored U.N. sanctions against North Korea for years are enforcing them now. Just look what I found in my visitors’ log after I first posted about the sanctions against Namibia that would be mandatory under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act:
[Now that I have your undivided attention ….]
In retrospect, the Namibian official’s visit to Pyongyang was probably meant to express regret at the termination of mil-mil cooperation with North Korea, and to express Namibia’s desire to maintain good relations anyway. That is, Namibia complied with U.N. sanctions reluctantly, but it still complied. Sometimes, the diplomat’s velvet glove works better with a regulator’s iron fist. So, to the anonymous diplomat who (I assume) presented that stark choice to the Namibian government, you may redeem a copy of this post for the beverage of your choice.
This isn’t the full extent of the public reporting on Seoul’s diplomatic offensive against Pyongyang’s arms dealers. Its diplomats have recently lobbied the governments of the EU, France, Bulgaria, and Russia. This week’s visit by a large, high-level delegation of South Korean diplomats to Laos and Cambodia could be even more critical.
“During the talks with senior officials, (Hwang) plans to request cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear issues, including efforts to push for the implementation of a United Nations Security Council resolution,” according to the ministry statement. [Yonhap]
The diplomats will come bearing gifts.
“Hwang will meet with Cambodia and Laos’s senior defense officials and discuss bilateral defense cooperation,” the ministry said in a press release.
Hwang is the highest ranking South Korean defense ministry official ever to visit the two countries. The delegation comprises working-level officials from Cheong Wa Dae, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of National Defense.
During his visit, Hwang will also make a courtesy call to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“In the talks with senior officials, Hwang plans to request cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, including efforts to push for the implementation of UNSC resolutions,” the ministry said.
Hwang will also meet with senior defense officials in Laos to discuss a wide range of issues, including cooperation in demining, according to the ministry. [Korea Times]
Both countries, with their lax and corrupt regulatory environments, have become key links in North Korea’s access to global shipping and finance. The strange North Korean happenings in Cambodia include the recent deaths of two North Korean doctors, the arrests of 15 North Koreans in Phnom Penh for running an illegal gambling website, the hosting of North Korean restaurants that are suspected havens for money laundering, and many reports of North Korean ships flying the Cambodian flag, a practice that was recently banned by UNSCR 2270. If Cambodia doesn’t fall into line with U.N. sanctions, the U.S. should impose sanctions against its shipping registries, and then perhaps some of its banks, under section 104(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Laos, with its record of repatriating North Korean refugees, should lose its tier status under the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act.
Previously, President Obama had urged Vietnam, a long-time North Korean arms client, to implement new U.N. sanctions, which will impact its exports to U.S. markets.
The news is not entirely good. For example, almost five months after the U.N. Panel of Experts named dozens of North Korean operatives, front companies, and third-country enablers, the Treasury Department hasn’t designated a single North Korean target since March 15th. I’m frustrated by the fact that, contrary to rumors I’d heard, there are still no human rights designations of North Korean officials, weeks after a statutory deadline to name names under section 304 and apply designations under section 104(a)(5).
All that is deeply disappointing and may soon draw unwanted attention from Congress, but at least we can say that the results of our progressive diplomacy are promising. As our Ambassador in Seoul, Mark Lippert, has said, sanctions enforcement is a long diplomatic game. Fortunately, North Korea’s friends tend to be poor countries, tied to Pyongyang by little more than fading Cold War memories and convenience. With continued effort and patience, those ties can be undone, and we’ll continue to see good results.
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Afterthought: Perhaps I’ve been too quick to assume that the Namibian government’s actions will follow its words. I suppose the wiser course is to keep watching for signs that the Namibian government is really doing this. Nor should we let it off the hook for doing everything that UNSCR 2270 requires — expel KOMID’s representatives, freeze its property, and dispose of it.
When the Secret Service first found high-quality counterfeit dollars circulating in the Middle East over three decades ago, North Korea wasn’t the prime suspect; Iran was. The counterfeits were so good that experts could only tell them from the originals by the superior quality of their printing, so the Secret Service named them “supernotes.” The Secret Service’s suspicions shifted to North Korea in 2000, after Cambodian authorities arrested Yoshimi Tanaka, a Japanese Red Army hijacker who had taken refuge in North Korea and was traveling in a North Korean diplomatic vehicle, on counterfeiting charges. Those suspicions eventually converged on Bureau 39 of the Korean Workers’ Party. Bureau 39’s job is to launder money. It earns money overseas, both legally and illegally, commingles it all together to make the dirty money untraceable, and launders the proceedsthroughslushfundsthatthe regime uses to buy just about everything starving kids can’t eat. North Korean diplomats also help launder supernotes.
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Since 2000, North Korea’s involvement in currency counterfeiting has been well documented. In 2004, the Justice Department indicted Sean Garland, the leader of a breakaway Marxist faction of the IRA, for buying supernotes from North Korean embassies and reselling them for a profit (an Irish court later refused to extradite Garland to the U.S. to stand trial). In 2005, the passing of supernotes was the principal basis for designating Banco Delta Asia as a primary money laundering concern and blocking it out of the financial system. In 2006, the Federal Reserve estimated that “approximately $22 million in supernotes has been passed to the public […] and approximately $50 million in supernotes has been seized by the U.S. Secret Service.” In 2008, a Las Vegas jury convicted Chen Chiang Liu of passing supernotes through casinos.
Although the supernote story invariably drew the usual assortment of conspiracy kooks, hack journalists, and North Korean sympathizers out of the woodwork, better quality investigative journalism makes a strong case against Pyongyang. In a 2006 report for the New York Times, Stephen Mihm explained how North Korean buyers went to the same Swiss suppliers who sold our own Bureau of Engraving and Printing, or BEP, its intaglio printing presses and optically variable ink. (The North Koreans’ interest ought to have raised immediate suspicions with the Swiss; after all, why would North Korea, whose own currency is non-convertible and worthless, need top-of-the-line presses and ink designed to foil counterfeiters?)
David Rose followed Mihm’s reporting with a detailed 2009 story for Vanity Fair, explaining how the feds linked the counterfeits to North Korea, how North Korea smuggles supernotes into the United States, and how Condoleezza Rice’s State Department suppressed a Justice Department indictment of Kim Jong-il for the counterfeiting operation. The International Consortium for Investigative Journalists has also reported on the smuggling of supernotes into the United States. Other reports have pinned control of the supernote operation on General O Kuk-ryol.
North Korean counterfeiting costs Americans money. The BEP redesigned the $50 note in 2003 and redesigned the $100 note twice since 1996, in part to stay ahead of the supernote’s criminal craftsmanship. In a 2009 report, the Federal Reserve said that it “budgeted an average $610 million for printing, shipping, counterfeit deterrence and other currency-related costs,” and that a currency redesign would also cost “up to $390 million for nonrecurring equipment upgrades for manufacturers of cash-accepting devices.” The current design of the $100 note is from 2013. (The BEP’s website doesn’t mention a botched 2010 redesign.) All of these costs are passed on to American taxpayers and consumers.
In recent years, reports of supernote arrests waned, although the problem never went away entirely. In 2012, South Korean authorities arrested a woman for “attempting to infiltrate South Korea by pretending to be a defector, and … circulating some $570,000 worth of supernotes in Beijing and Shenyang from 2001 to 2007.” This was still old news, but in 2013, the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence confirmed that North Korea continued “to try to pass a supernote into the international financial system,” although it was “less of an issue than it was a few years ago” and had “calmed down to some extent.” As recently as March of this year, Vice News figured that the supernotes had vanished. It quoted Michael Madden as saying, “I don’t think they’re currently involved in counterfeiting anymore.” According to Kathy Moon, supernotes are “not something people are seeing.”
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Perhaps they spoke too soon. This week, Yonhap reported that authorities in Hong Kong recently found supernotes on a businessman arriving from Pyongyang. Last week, The Joongang Ilboreported that “a North Korean agent was arrested in the border city of Dandong in Liaoning Province, northeastern China,” for his involvement in “distributing counterfeit U.S. dollars.” The story quotes an unnamed source as saying that the agent “brought $5 million in cash into China from North Korea” to buy “household goods and home appliances” as gifts for North Korean elites for Kim Il-sung’s birthday (April 15th) and the Workers’ Party’s congress (May 7th). The paper notes that because of new sanctions, “Pyongyang is being blocked from financial transactions giving it access to U.S. cash.”
“The $5 million was exchanged at the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and the Agricultural Bank of China for some 30 million yuan [$4.6 million] and then deposited,” the source said. “But a number of the notes were found to be counterfeit $100 bills when they were run through the banknote counter by a bank employee, so Chinese authorities ordered the relevant account be frozen and arrested the North Korean agent.” [Joongang Ilbo]
In February, I posted about reports that the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China’s largest bank, had “suspended cash deposit and transfer services for accounts owned by North Koreans.” Either that report wasn’t true, the bank quietly unfroze some of those accounts, or China’s largest bank isn’t taking its Know-Your-Customer obligations very seriously and needs to fire its compliance officer. (On June 2nd, Treasury dramatically raised the risk to banks that service North Korean clients by designating North Korea as a primary money laundering concern, and banning all direct and indirect correspondent account services for North Korean banks.)
Picking up with our story, Chinese authorities then went to the North Korean’s home in Dandong, where they confiscated 30 million yuan and an unspecified quantity of gold bars. The agent’s use of counterfeit dollars, yuan, and gold provides further evidence that they are having serious cash flow problems. Last week, I posted about a Daily NK report that North Korean agents were defaulting on their debts to Chinese creditors, and an NK News report that some North Korean purchasers had inexplicably stopped buying goods from their Chinese suppliers in March. According to the Daily NK, those experiencing cash flow problems include Bureau 39 agents.
Intriguingly, the Daily NK also reported that a North Korean agent couldn’t raise the cash to buy flat-screen TVs from China to dole out as highly coveted swag for the elites (in violation of U.N. sanctions, which prohibit North Korea from importing “luxury goods”). I speculated then that the North Korean agents’ accounts may have been frozen by their Chinese bankers. These reports support that speculation and offer one possible explanation.
“North Korea’s economy is entering a state of paralysis because of a shortage of dollars, and there is a high likelihood that it is systematically counterfeiting notes and in the process of wide-scale distribution,” the source added.
“Starting from March, a large amount of supernotes were found in border regions between China and North Korea and China’s three northeastern provinces [Liaoning, Jilin and Heilongjiang], and many have pointed to North Korea as the source of production and circulation,” Park Byung-kwang, a senior researcher with the Seoul-based Institute for National Security Strategy, said.
A follow-up report from The Joongang Ilbo — which has historically done some outstanding reporting on North Korean money laundering — identified the North Korean agent arrested in Dandong as an officer in an agency “responsible for major espionage missions against Seoul.” That’s a good description of the Reconnaissance General Bureau, or RGB, which is also responsible for acts of international terrorism, including abductions, assassinations, and a 2014 cyberterrorist attack against the United States. Consistent with the Daily NK‘s report last week, the agent “was going to pay that businessman for trade goods but could not do so apparently because of his arrest.”
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So why, after allowing Bureau 39 and RGB agents to operate on their territory for years, would the Chinese suddenly crack down? For one thing, counterfeiting harms the interests of China’s banking industry, which hasn’t seemed so steady recently.
Here’s an even better reason: a defector organization, North Korea Intellectuals’ Solidarity, says that North Korea is distributing “massive quantities” of “counterfeit Chinese currency under the supervision of Kim Jong Un.” Or so says “a source based in North Korea.” The Korea Times also reports that Chinese authorities are on alert for counterfeit renminbi after multiple Chinese press reports that counterfeits “have recently been circulated in several Chinese cities, including Shaoxing in Zhejiang Province.” Local press speculation has pointed fingers at North Korea. The state-run Global Times, known for its nationalism and anti-Americanism, has also reported that counterfeit renminbi found in Dalian “were identified as North Korean.”
The yuan has circulated widely in North Korea since a disastrous 2009 currency reform — really, a mass confiscation — backfired and obliterated the market value of the North Korean won. Printing fake yuan would be an easy way for the North Korean government to cheat the donju — the well-connected traders who obtain most of Pyongyang’s needs from Chinese vendors, and the Chinese vendors themselves. Bureau 39 agents who are under intense pressure to fund Kim Jong-un’s priorities may be tempted to use supernotes and superyuan to meet their quotas.
NKIS’s allegations are somewhat consistent with previous reports. Its source in North Korea says that the superyuan are printed in Pyongson. Stephen Mihm’s 2006 report for the New York Times identified Pyongsong as the city where supernotes were printed. On the other hand, NKIS also claims that North Korea started printing yuan in 2013, which contradicts a 2007 report by the journalists Hideko Takayama and Bradley Martin that North Korea was printing counterfeit renminbi nearly a decade ago. What seems more likely is that North Korea printed small amounts of yuan before 2007 and stopped when the story broke, given the obvious danger Kim Jong-il would have seen to his relationship with his principal backer.
Today, with China’s banks having finally been forced to choose between their North Korean clients and their access to the U.S. financial system — and having largely opted for the latter — Kim Jong-un may feel less compunction about sticking it to China.
We can add these reports to the evidence that North Korean agents are under significant financial pressure, although I can’t say whether the chicken or the egg came first.* Did the North Koreans turn back to counterfeiting just because it’s their nature, thus causing their accounts to be frozen, or did sanctions and the freezing of their accounts cause the North Koreans to turn to counterfeiting out of financial desperation? Whatever the reason, dumping funny money into the Chinese economy will further strain Sino-North Korean relations, and will add fuel to arguments to expel the North Korean trading companies and agents who pass the counterfeit bills. This time, North Korea’s criminal activities are an even greater threat to China than they are to us.
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* Of course, the egg came first, silly. Dinosaurs laid eggs millions of years before the first chicken did, after all.
The Treasury Department has sanctioned the presidents of Belarus and Zimbabwe and their cabinets for undermining democratic processes or institutions and has frozen their assets in the international financial system. It has sanctioned top officials of the Russian government for Russia’s aggression against its neighbor, the Ukraine.
It has sanctioned the president of Syria for human rights violations, censorship, and corruption, among other reasons. It sanctioned Iranian officials for censorship and human rights abuses. It has even sanctioned officials in tiny Burundi for human rights abuses.
As of the time of this post, there are still no human rights sanctions against a single North Korean official. As bad as things may be in any of the aforementioned places, are they worse anywhere than in North Korea?
The Chairman of the U.N. Commission of Inquiry that investigated human rights abuses in North Korea has said that “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations reveal a State that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world” and described the abuses there as “strikingly similar” to those perpetrated by the Nazis during World War II.
The Commission’s detailed 372-page report found the North Korean government responsible for “crimes against humanity, arising from ‘policies established at the highest level of State,’” including “extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation.”
The lesson for every despot on earth is that nuclear weapons will immunize you from the consequences of your crimes against humanity.
Seeking to rectify this outrage, this year, Congress passed a law that gave the President 120 days to submit a report on human rights abuses in North Korea, along with a list of those responsible. The provision requires the President to make specific findings with respect to Kim Jong-un’s individual responsibility. Those found responsible must then be designated under section 104(a) of the law, which freezes their assets and threatens secondary sanctions against those who transact with them. The 120 days ran out on June 11th.
Even before the law passed, the administration could see the overwhelming bipartisan support for human rights sanctions and began hinting at imposing them. It still didn’t act, but after the law passed, it begandropping increasingly stronghints that it would finally impose human rights sanctions on top North Korean officials. North Korea’s latest missile launch now gives the White House new impetus to increase pressure on Pyongyang, as if that impetus was lacking after the U.N. Commission released its report.
According to rumors circulating in the press and in human rights circles, the President will finally sanction “about ten” top officials of the North Korean government today. [Update: Now we know that Monday wasn’t the day. Watch this space.] The rumor I heard last week is that His Porcine Majesty Kim Jong-un, the morbidly obese despot who rules over millions of malnourished and stuntedchildren, will be among them.
That could be the first step in blocking the billions of dollars he maintains in slush funds in China, Switzerland, and elsewhere. It will be the first concrete action our government — or any other government — will have taken in the more than two years since the Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Kirby released its report.
The Obama administration will now speak with gravity and sagacity about the horrors in North Korea and its seriousness about addressing them. It will make a virtue of necessity and claim the mantle of moral leadership in holding North Korea’s rulers accountable for their crimes against humanity. I’d be content to let them carry it for their remaining months in office … if they really do lead. But this is not a moment for relief that our government may finally act, at least a decade after it should have. It is a moment to mourn for the victims, both living and dead, and for the forfeited moral leadership of a nation that acted so late, and only after Congress forced the President to act.
In March, this blog reported on the revelation by the U.N. Panel of Experts that the African nation of Namibia, a desert country in the southwest corner of the continent, had hired North Koreans, including representatives of U.N.-designated KOMID, to build an arms factory near Windhoek. At the time, Deputy Prime Minister Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah came to her government’s defense, admitting that her government was the site of a North Korean-run arms factory, but denying that the arrangement violated U.N. sanctions.
Today, NK News reports that Ms. N-N arrived in Pyongyang last Friday for a state visit, where she posed for photographs with Kim Yong-nam.
[via NK News]
Now, I can’t say whether the purpose of the visit itself is inappropriate unless I know what those present will discuss. After all, not all diplomatic interactions with North Korea are prohibited. I suppose the purpose of the visit could be to “sever ties and wrap things up,” as Daniel Pinkston suggests, but the level of the interactions and the coincident publicity don’t give me much confidence in that theory.
As noted above, Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah is well aware of the North Korean arms factory in her country, but has denied that it violates U.N. sanctions. The U.N. Panel of Experts has correctly concluded that it’s a violation.
106. The construction of any munitions factory or related military facilities is considered to be services or assistance relating to the provision, manufacture or maintenance of arms and related materiel and therefore prohibited under the resolutions.
Here are the relevant provisions of UNSCR 2270:
“6. Decides that the measures in paragraph 8 (a) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall also apply to all arms and related materiel, including small arms and light weapons and their related materiel, as well as to financial transactions, technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms and related materiel;
“9. Recalls that paragraph 9 of resolution 1874 (2009) requires States to prohibit the procurement from the DPRK of technical training, advice, services or assistance related to the provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of arms and related materiel, and clarifies that this paragraph prohibits States from engaging in the hosting of trainers, advisors, or other officials for the purpose of military-, paramilitary- or police-related training;
Investigative journalist John Grobler later did an outstanding report on the factory for NK News, revealing the extent of the factory’s operations. Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah has argued, however, that because the arms factory deal predates U.N. sanctions it’s permitted. Nonsense. UNSCR 2270 even has a force majeure clause in paragraph 47, clarifying that no claim shall lie for the termination of preexisting contracts that violate the sanctions. The resolutions clearly have retroactive effect.
The 2016 POE report found that the North Korean company running the arms factory is KOMID, which is designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department — either “in cooperation with, or using the alias of, Mansudae Overseas Project Group companies.” The Namibian government is obligated to expel all KOMID representatives and freeze all KOMID property immediately:
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. . . .
“32. Decides that the asset freeze imposed by paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) shall apply to all the funds, other financial assets and economic resources outside of the DPRK that are owned or controlled, directly or indirectly, by entities of the Government of the DPRK or the Worker’s Party of Korea, or by individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, or by entities owned or controlled by them, that the State determines are associated with the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programs or other activities prohibited by resolutions 1718 (2006), 1874 (2009), 2087 (2013), 2094 (2013) or this resolution, decides further that all States except the DPRK shall ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any individuals or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of such individuals or entities, or individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, or entities owned or controlled by them, and decides that these measures shall not apply with respect to funds, other financial assets and economic resources that are required to carry out activities of the DPRK’s missions to the United Nations and its specialized agencies and related organizations or other diplomatic and consular missions of the DPRK, and to any funds, other financial assets and economic resources that the Committee determines in advance on a case-by-case basis are required for the delivery of humanitarian assistance, denuclearization or any other purpose consistent with the objectives of this resolution.
Either Ms. Nandi-Ndaitwah hasn’t read the resolutions or has chosen to defy them. If strong diplomatic appeals still haven’t secured commitments to bring that violation to an end, the State and Treasury Departments should act swiftly to sanction the North Korean and Namibian entities involved under section 104(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Anything less would signal to North Korea’s arms clients elsewhere in Africa that the U.N. Security Council’s resolutions are mere suggestions. This time, an example must be made.