Over the weekend, Malaysian authorities painstakingly decontaminated a terminal of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport where North Korean agents — including a diplomat — carried out a lethal attack with the nerve agent VX, a substance so deadly that a tiny droplet can kill an adult. The authorities are clearly concerned that the use of a persistent chemical weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal will cause panic among Malaysian citizens and members of the traveling public, as well they should be. Pyongyang’s reckless act endangered thousands of innocent lives. It endangered every child who sat on the floor while her mother used the check-in machines. It endangered every baby who touched a contaminated surface and put her finger in her mouth, and every mother who used one of the sinks the attackers used to wash their hands. It endangered every worker who cleaned the restrooms or vacuumed the floors, every traveler who touched the handrails on the escalators going down to the taxi rank, every passenger who rode in one of those taxis after the attackers did, and every person who walked through that terminal and took her shoes off at her front doorstep.
The first object of Malaysians’ outrage is, and should be, the North Korean government. As of this hour, the North Korean embassy is still harboring two suspects, refusing to cooperate with Malaysian authorities, and spewing flagrant lies to deflect blame. Obviously, I can’t speak for the Malaysian government, but if I could, I’d be making plans to close the embassy, to expel everyone with diplomatic immunity, and arrest any suspect without it.
But if Pyongyang deserves the brunt of our outrage, a second object of outrage should be the Malaysian government itself, which had long been warned in U.N. reports that Pyongyang’s agents on its soil were violating U.N. sanctions and the laws of other nations, yet did little to curtail them. Report after report identified Malaysia as the home base of North Korean spies, smugglers, arms dealers, slave traders, money launderers, and procurers of tools to make missiles. In allowing this activity to go on for years, the Malaysian government not only allowed North Korea to endanger Malaysians, but to endanger the citizens of other countries — and indeed, the security of the entire world.
Just last week, for example, Reuters reported on the contents of a leaked excerpt of the 2017 report by the U.N. Panel of Experts overseeing compliance with U.N. sanctions against North Korea, including an embargo on the sale or purchase by North Korea or arms and related materiel. The report described the interdiction last year of a shipment of North Korean weapons in transit to Eritrea, including 45 boxes of battlefield radios manufactured by the Malaysia-based company Glocom. According to the report, Glocom is a front for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Korean Workers’ Party, an entity designated by the U.N. Security Council, and the agency suspected of carrying out the Kuala Lumpur airport attack. Glocom still operates through this website marketing its wares. It does not list Glocom’s corporate officers, so I’ll let the Malaysian authorities investigate whether there are any financial, logistical, material, or personnel links between Glocom and the attackers. Overall, that seems likely to be the case.
Reuters has a must-read story on Glocom filled with details about how it masked its ownership and control behind layers of front companies and shell companies, and tied itself to Malaysian man with influence in the country’s ruling party. They even made this org chart:
It notes that on one occasion in 2014, a female RGB agent named Ryang Su-nyo was caught at the Kuala Lumpur airport terminal while attempting to smuggle $450,000 in cash through customs (note again the North Korean preference for U.S. dollars). Ryang said she was transporting the money for the North Korean embassy, so the authorities decided not to press charges and gave the cash back. Here’s a newer website for Glocom. This wasn’t like any of the ham-handed, rinky-dink North Korean front companies I’ve seen before. This was a slick, sophisticated, and well-capitalized operation that raised funds for an agency with a long history of terrorism. If any of the money ran through the U.S. financial system, which seems likely, it would be worth exploring a material support charge.
Then, there is the case of a 2007 shipment of missile parts seized en route from North Korea to Syria. That shipment, which transited through Dalian, China and Port Kelang, Malaysia contained, among other items, “solid double-base propellant … usable for gas generators to power Scud missile turbopumps.” When the shipment was seized, the blocks of explosive propellant that had passed through those busy ports were removed “for safety reasons.” (2012 report, Para. 57.)
Malaysia has long been a hub and meeting venue for North Korean arms smuggling. A shipment of tank parts bound for the Republic of Congo, and which was seized in South Africa in 2010, was routed through Dalian, China and Port Kelang. (2010 report, Para. 63.) In June 2009, Japanese authorities arrested three individuals for attempting to illegally export a magnetometer to Myanmar through Malaysia, “allegedly under the direction of a company known to be associated with illicit procurement for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear and military programmes.” (2010 report, Para. 51.) In 2012, Japan notified the panel of 2008 and 2009 shipments through Malaysia of machinery useful for producing missile gyroscopes. (2012 report, Para. 91.)
Malaysians have seen the tragic results of anti-aircraft missiles falling into the wrong hands. In 2012, a British court convicted arms smuggler Michael Ranger of attempting to sell Azerbaijan “between 70 and 100 man-portable air defence systems”* from Hesong Trading Company, a subsidiary of the notorious Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, or KOMID, Pyongyang’s principal arms-dealing front company. Ranger “was in regular e-mail correspondence with” O Hak-Chol, a North Korean diplomat and Hesong representative whom Mr. Ranger met in a number of third countries, including Malaysia. (2013 report, Paras. 90-95 & FN.61.) As recently as 2015, KOMID representatives continued to transit through Malaysia. (2016 report, Para. 177.)
As of 2015, long after the Security Council designated North Korean shipper Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) for arms smuggling and required member states to close its offices and expel its representatives, OMM still maintained an office in Kuala Lumpur. (2015 report, Para. 128.) Until early 2015, a Malaysia-based North Korean agent named Pak In-su acted as an agent for the Mirae Shipping Company, a front for OMM.
Pak In-su’s primary employer was Malaysian Coal and Minerals Corporation (2015 report, Para. 143), a company that is almost certainly linked to Malaysia’s use of North Korean labor in its coal mines. What little we know of working conditions for North Korean expatriate laborers in Malaysia, and what we know of the conditions elsewhere, suggests that those conditions are tantamount to slavery. At least one North Korean miner in Malaysia was killed in an explosion in 2014. In the end, the regime in Pyongyang probably keeps most of the workers’ wages.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that 300 North Korean laborers are working in Malaysia. Partially as a result of such labor practices, Malaysia was recently downgraded to Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which imposes penalties on legitimate Malaysian businesses that export to the United States. It also subjects Malaysia to sanctions risks, and the entire world to security risks. In a press release announcing its designation of the Mansudae Overseas Project group, for exportation of workers in violation of Executive Order 13722, the Treasury Department listed Malaysia as a market for Mansudae’s services, and said, “Some of the revenue generated by overseas laborers is used by the Munitions Industry Department, which was designated by the Department of State in August 2010 pursuant to E.O. 13382 for its support to North Korea’s WMD program.”
The procurement network that obtained parts and materials for North Korea’s missile programs has long had a strong presence in Malaysia. This presence has included entities that were designated by the U.N., including OMM, Mirae Shipping, and KOMID, and a U.N.-designated North Korean arms exporter known as Green Pine. In 2006 and 2010, the Korea Chonbok Trading Corporation, a front for Green Pine, purchased pressure transmitters from an unnamed European country for its long-range Unha-3 rockets. A payment invoice for the transactions lists one Ryong Jong-chol, a North Korean based in Malaysia, as the purchaser. (2015 report, Para. 195.) The payments, denominated in Euro, were routed through a Malaysian bank. According to the Panel, “Ryom was acting as the representative of Bank of East Land.” East Land was later designated by the U.S. Treasury Department (in 2011), the U.N. (in 2013), and the European Union (in 2013). (2016 report, Para. 186.) As of February 2016, the Malaysian government had still not responded to the Panel’s request for information about the transactions.
Malaysia’s tolerance of North Korea’s deceptive financial practices endangers Malaysian banks’ access to the global financial system. Malaysia is one of the few nations that still deals with North Korean banks, despite U.N. resolutions requiring “enhanced monitoring” of its financial activities (Para. 11), and warnings by the Financial Action Task Force to take “countermeasures” against North Korean money laundering and proliferation financing. In 2009, U.S. sanctions coordinator Philip Goldberg and Treasury official Daniel Glaser traveled to Malaysia and met with senior officials of the Malaysian government and central bank, regarding the implementation of U.N. financial sanctions under then-new UNSCR 1874. That visit followed reports that Malaysian banks were involved in transferring funds between North Korea and Burma for weapons-related transactions, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. In 2013, Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen visited Malaysia to discuss its compliance with U.N. financial sanctions.
At least one major Malaysian Bank, Malayan Banking Berhad, was reported by the Panel in 2010 to maintain a correspondent relationship with, or to issue letters of credit for, North Korean banks. (2010 report, page 68.) It’s important to note, however, that the U.N. Security Council did not prohibit correspondent relationships with North Korean banks until 90 days after the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, on March 3, 2016. The Panel’s 2013 report listed the International Consortium Bank, a/k/a Hi-Fund International Bank as having been partially capitalized by and founded by the Malaysia Korea Partners Group of Companies (2013 report, page 132.)
ICB is a subsidiary of a North Korean front company called the MKP Group, which has the world’s most hilariously awful website, appears to have some ties to the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, also operates in Zambia, and really merits a post of its own one day. The existence of these banking relationships shows the importance of Malaysia as a secondary hub in Pyongyang’s financial network, which is often used for illicit purposes.
A recent investigation by Bangladeshi authorities into the smuggling of undeclared luxury goods, including LED televisions, tobacco, Rolls-Royces, and BMWs, has reportedly implicated the North Korean embassy in Malaysia. Under UNSCR 1718, North Korea is prohibited from importing luxury goods. In this case, the end destination for the goods isn’t clear, but whoever is behind the shipments conspired to evade Bangladesh import duties.
For the most part, the substantial network of North Korean arms smugglers, spies, and money launderers who operate in Malaysia merely endanger the citizens of other nations — most obviously in South Korea, but also in Syria and the Republic of Congo. In most cases, however, it’s impossible to predict who and where the next victims of North Korea’s activities will be. North Korea sells the world’s most dangerous weapons and technology to any buyer without regard to end users, victims, or consequences. As the VX attack at Kuala Lumpur illustrates, allowing North Korean agents to operate on one’s soil eventually endangers the host country’s citizens and interests, too. The question that the Malaysian people and government should be asking is whether the benefits of their financial and commercial ties to North Korea are really worth those risks.
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* North Korea has been caught selling MANPADS before. One shipment of them was seized in Bangkok in 2010, on its way to Iran’s terrorist clients. In 2010, Yi Qing Chen was convicted of attempting to smuggle Chinese-made QM-2 man-portable surface-to-air missiles into the United States in 2005. In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The QM-2 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Igla-1, or SAM-18.