Maximum Pressure Watch: Trump puts the squeeze on Kim Jong-un

Donald Trump hit Kim Jong-un with his first sanctions executive order today. The new EO partially implements UNSCR 2371, UNSCR 2375, and the KIMS Act, which the President signed in August. As a strictly legal matter, this EO will not affect anyone’s interests immediately because Treasury didn’t announce any new designations. As a practical matter, however, we may already be seeing the effects of the clear seriousness of purpose that Trump has already shown. You can read the full text here and a White House fact sheet here.

The New Authorities: A Summary

The new provisions broaden the administration’s authority to designate (and thus, freeze any assets within U.S. jurisdiction of) entities that engage in the conduct described below:

  • (i) Sectoral sanctions against anyone determined “to operate in the construction, energy, financial services, fishing, information technology, manufacturing, medical, mining, textiles, or transportation industries in North Korea.”

Treasury previously authorized sectoral sanctions against anyone operating in North Korea’s the mining, energy, transportation, and financial services industries. The newly designated industries include those sanctioned under the new U.N. resolutions and the KIMS Act. Sanctions on the medical industry are a notable exception. This will draw gasps of horror from some, but remember, there’s still a humanitarian general license that exempts “medicine distribution” and “the provision of health services.” Section 7 of the EO exempts UN operations entirely. So why say “medical” at all? The feds may suspect Pyongyang of hiding behind “medical” uses to make biological weapons, but that’s only a guess.  

  • (ii) Shipping sanctions against anyone who owns, controls, or operates any seaport, airport, or land port of entry in North Korea.
  • (iii) Import-Export: “to have engaged in at least one significant importation from or exportation to North Korea of any goods, services, or technology.”

Executive Order 13570 previously banned unlicensed imports and exports between the United States and North Korea. This provision, by contrast, bans any transactions through the U.S. financial system, or by U.S. persons, that facilitate imports to or exports from North Korea by anyone, to or from any country. In effect, if you trade with North Korea now, you have to use a non-dollar currency or get an OFAC license.

  • (iv) Status-based: “to be a North Korean person, including a North Korean person that has engaged in commercial activity that generates revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

This effectively cuts the Gordian Knot around the spurious claims of China (or this one, by Tanzania) that the North Koreans they’re dealing with aren’t representatives of the North Korean government. Hopefully, Treasury will now start mining names out of the U.N. Panel of Experts reports and designating the members of Pyongyang’s overseas proliferation and money laundering networks, thus putting the banking industry on notice to freeze their accounts.

I’m glad Treasury exempted North Koreans (including refugees) who are legally in the United States. I would have preferred that Treasury had clarified that North Korean refugees in Europe and South Korea are also exempt. I realize that Treasury has no intention of enforcing sanctions against refugees in England or South Korea — and I hope the banks realize this, too. Some clarifying guidance from Treasury might be useful. Refugees in South Korea, in particular, often keep their family members alive by remitting money to them. As I’ve argued before, remittances might be a rare case of financial interaction with North Korea that actually does drive reform, by helping the poor start businesses and achieve financial independence from the state. Thankfully, a general license covers noncommercial, personal remittances.

Things start to get more interesting in Section 2, which provides for a secondary boycott on ships and aircraft. Under the EO, any ships or aircraft that have been in North Korea in the last 180 days can’t land in the United States. This both overlaps with and complements section 315 of the KIMS Act. It is also the same concept that Japan and South Korea had previously applied to North Korean ships, meaning that ships that visit North Korea will now incur a six-month ban from the waters of China’s three largest trading partners. Furthermore, any ship that has done a ship-to-ship transfer with a ship that has been in North Korea in the last 180 days also gets banned from U.S. ports for 180 days. Shipping trackers suggest that a fair number of these transfers are happening off the Chinese coast. A concern, however, is that the existing humanitarian general license may not cover shipments of commercial food imports (which we should want to encourage).

Section 3 contains some very tough secondary financial sanctions. Section 3(a) freezes any funds controlled by a “North Korean person,” or in which a North Korean person as an interest. This is very powerful — much like its ancestor, section 104(c) the NKSPEA, which blocks all property of the “Government of North Korea,” a term that the NKSPEA defines in roughly similar terms to this EO’s definition of “North Korean person.” The EO also extends the blocking to any person who finances, approves, facilitates, or guarantees a transaction that would be frozen under this paragraph.

Section 4 contains some additional penalties that are tailored to the financial industry. Any person who knowingly conducts or facilitates a transaction in property blocked under a North Korea-related executive order, or who knowingly conducts or facilitates a significant transaction in trade with North Korea, can lose access to the U.S. financial system. That potentially means no correspondent accounts, or the freezing of all of the bank’s assets in the United States. This amounts to a mini Patriot Act section 311 just for North Korea. And of course, banks that knowingly deal with Pyongyang could also face prosecution for money laundering, criminal or civil forfeitures, or the kind of civil penalties that were applied to BNP Paribas for violating Iran sanctions.

Which is to say, this section mostly does what section 104(b) of the NKSPEA does, now that President Trump has signed the KIMS Act section 311 amendments into law.

 We sound like we really mean it this time.

The effects of previous, strong-on-paper EOs fell short of their potential because President Obama never showed the world that he was serious about enforcing them (or rather, until the very end of his administration, he showed the world that he wasn’t serious about enforcing them at all). Let no one accuse Donald Trump of indecision or paralysis.

“A new executive order will cut off sources of revenue that fund North Korea’s efforts to develop the deadliest weapons known to humankind,” Trump said at the start of a trilateral luncheon meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in New York….

Trump said China’s central bank had just told the country’s other banks to “immediately” stop doing business with North Korea, and thanked Chinese President Xi Jinping for that “unexpected” decision.

“For much too long North Korea has been allowed to abuse the international financial system to facilitate funding for its nuclear weapons and missile programs,” he said. [Yonhap]

Take note, humanity: Donald Trump just said the right thing in the right tone, and it all appears to be true, right down to “unexpectedly.” Then, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said this at the U.N., just to be sure the whole world heard him:

For far too long, North Korea has evaded sanctions and used the international financial system to facilitate funding for its weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs. No bank – in any country – should be used to facilitate Kim Jong-un’s destructive behavior.

This new Executive Order will authorize Treasury to impose a range of sanctions, such as suspending U.S. correspondent account access to any foreign bank that knowingly conducts or facilitates significant transactions tied to trade with North Korea or certain designated persons.…  Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that, going forward, they can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both….

We call on countries around the world to join us by cutting all trade and financial ties with North Korea in order to achieve a denuclearized Korean peninsula. [link]

Finally, in a conference call this afternoon, a senior National Security Council official and a senior Treasury Department official (whom we weren’t allowed to name) emphasized the administration’s seriousness. Some key points:

  • This EO goes further than any other sanctions EO — implicitly, including even Iran. He might be right. I might have to shelve my “not the most sanctioned” refrain, assuming the administration enforces this.
  • Treasury will unravel the front companies and shell companies to get to any shipping company that smuggles to or from North Korea in violation of this EO.
  • Treasury is investigating financial institutions that have been involved in facilitating trade with North Korea, and will start enforcing this EO in the near term.
  • Treasury won’t only enforce the EO against Chinese banks. Before the President signed the EO, the administration discussed it with EU, Japanese, and South Korean officials. Oh, and Treasury would really like the South Koreans to use the full extent of their legal authority to publish their equivalent of SDN designations of North Korean enablers.
  • Also, it welcomes the investigative work of NGOs, specifically C4ADS (which single-handedly exposed much of Pyongyang’s money laundering network in China). I hope that means the government will offer them grant funding or rewards, as authorized in section 323 of the KIMS Act. (Leo Byrne and The Beard of Knowledge also received well-deserved praise.)

 Signs of impact on North Korean trade

So, you ask, will the Chinese banks finally listen? I’ve cited the evidence that they already are. Fuel prices in North Korea have spiked, North Korean workers are flooding back over the border to China, and trading companies in China are effectively out of business and unhappy about the freezing of their bank accounts. The coal industry, which has taken some hard hits from the Treasury and Justice Departments lately, is also showing the strain. These things could be consequences of the banks telling their customers to de-risk North Korea. We may soon find out just who’s right here.

Today, Reuters reports that the Chinese government has directed its banks to stop dealing with North Koreans entirely, to include winding down loans with existing customers. If that’s true — and if it lasts — that will be fatal. The timing is curious. One of the “senior administration officials” said that President Trump had only notified President Xi about this EO today, yet the reports of the alleged Central Bank order — the bankers say they received it Monday — come a week after multiple press reports of Chinese banks closing North Korean-controlled accounts. Could Beijing be making a virtue of necessity by ordering banks to do what they’re already doing for their own sake? As I’ve said before, there isn’t just one “China.” Various ministries and industries have diverse and conflicting interests.

This week, President Trump acted strongly, decisively, publicly, and with a deliberate seriousness of purpose. Banks and governments around the world will disregard his words at their peril (meaning, very few of them will). His misbegotten threats against North Korea (as opposed to its regime) shouldn’t distract us from what he did right, if only because his predecessors could not do it right. His words and actions, and in tandem with other governments’ actions to cut their trade and diplomatic ties to North Korea, should be difficult for Pyongyang to withstand for long. We may soon conclude the sanctions-never-work portion of our narrative and enter the sanctions-are-starving-North-Korean-babies portion of our narrative fairly soon. In fact, it looks like we already have.

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Chinese banks are cracking down on N. Korean money laundering again. Will it last this time?

Several news sources are reporting that Chinese banks, particularly in China’s northeast, have started to freeze or close accounts held by North Korean individuals and businesses. The Daily NK, citing unnamed local sources, was the first to report this potentially important development. It says both large state-owned banks (such as the China Construction Bank) and regional banks (such as Pudong Bank) recently banned all North Koreans from opening new accounts and ordered the closure of existing accounts. It also quotes a March 2017 report by Radio Free Asia that “[p]rivate Chinese banks are beginning to close bank accounts held by North Korean nationals” and that “North Korean laborers earning foreign currency in China have been issued an emergency alert.”

Kyodo News, citing “sources familiar with the situation,” says that the new measures have made it “nearly impossible to do business between the two countries.” It reports that the Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China branches in Yanji, have all banned North Koreans from opening accounts. The banks have not yet frozen the accounts, meaning that the North Koreans can still withdraw cash, but they can’t make deposits or remittances. According to an unnamed employee of one of the banks, “This is being influenced by international sanctions against North Korea.”

Kyodo speculates that either “China may have become more serious about curbing its nuclear ambitions,” or that the measures were “intended to help major Chinese banks avoid being hit by sanctions imposed by the United States and other countries,” like the Bank of Dandong was. Interestingly, it also attributes a 75 percent decline in North Korea’s imports of refined petroleum products over three months, and a corresponding rise in fuel prices inside North Korea, to the fact that “North Koreans were having difficulty paying for petroleum product imports because of the banking restrictions.”

Reuters, citing a bank teller in Liaoning, reports that the China Construction Bank “completely prohibited business with North Korea” starting on August 28th. A customer service representative for the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China also told Reuters that the bank “had stopped opening accounts for North Koreans” and (for good measure) Iranians on July 16th, but didn’t explain further. Those dates closely follow a series of forfeiture complaints, seizures, and designations by the Justice and Treasury Departments, most of them targeting financial flows through Chinese banks, involving North Korean front companies, which turn out to be less well hidden than many “experts” had assumed.

The Bank of China, which became a bête noire for Congress much earlier than other Chinese banks over revelations that its Singapore branch willfully helped Chinpo Shipping facilitate money laundering (and indirectly, arms smuggling) for His Porcine Majesty, stopped allowing North Koreans to open accounts at the end of last year. Or so says an unnamed teller at the BoC’s Dandong branch, who adds that the BoC also froze existing North Korean accounts. A teller at the Agricultural Bank of China branch in Dandong also said that BoC was refusing to open new accounts for North Koreans.

The Financial Times also reports that “multiple bank branches,” including those of China’s big five banks, “had imposed a freeze on new accounts” for North Korean individuals and companies, and that some of the banks were also “cleaning out” existing North Korean accounts and banning North Koreans from making new deposits. Officials at all of the banks refused to comment.

Both the FT and the Daily NK note that the banks’ new measures exceed what new U.N. sanctions require, but all of the reports fail to note that these actions would be completely consistent with stricter U.S. financial regulation on North Korean money laundering, along with the aforementioned recent actions by the Treasury and Justice departments, showing that the feds can trace North Korean transactions through specific Chinese banks — including those named in these reports — and are willing to take legal action against them. Some sources told the FT that corporate told them to freeze North Korean accounts in August; others said they were told in January.

Unfortunately, the Daily NK reports that North Koreans affected include not only “consular officials” and state trading companies, but also “laborers,” who may be either illegal (and increasingly scarce) migrant workers or state-contracted slave laborers (the report didn’t specify). Either way, that’s an unfortunate and unavoidable consequence of what would be an extremely important development — if it lasts. The FT quotes a Chinese professor of North Korea studies, who puts a brave face on the actions, saying that the actions benefit China, and that “China takes sanctions very seriously.” Stop laughing, dammit — this is a serious, adult conversation about banking regulation.

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The FT calls this “unprecedented,” but it really isn’t (of the five news sources I cite here, only the Daily NK gets this). There is, of course, the example of Banco Delta Asia and what we too easily forget — the Bush administration’s global campaign of financial diplomacy that persuaded banks around the world to close North Korean accounts. We now know that that strategy put Kim Jong-Il’s regime under severe financial strain, until Bush lost his nerve, lifted the pressure, and exchanged invaluable sanctions relief for a handful of worthless North Korean promises.

Then, in 2013, after Pyongyang’s third nuclear test, after Treasury sanctioned the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank, and after Ed Royce first introduced the bill that would later become the NKSPEA, which mandates secondary sanctions, big Chinese banks began to freeze and close North Korean accounts. It didn’t last, because the banks soon saw that Xi Jinping wanted those accounts open more than Barack Obama wanted them closed. The same pattern repeated itself in early 2016, and again (as Justice Department filings later showed) it was right back to business as usual a few month later, again because the Obama administration wasn’t willing to back its sanctions with enforcement actions.

Is this time any different? The answer depends on why the banks are doing this. As noted, what the banks are doing here doesn’t exactly align with what the U.N. resolutions require, but it aligns perfectly with what I’d expect inexperienced Chinese compliance officers to do to protect their banks from rising legal risks under U.S. banking and sanctions laws. In this post, I explained the importance of distinguishing the interests and actions of the Chinese government from those of individual Chinese banks, which are actually global corporations with global exposure. In other words, “Chinese” banks may be bending to Treasury’s will for the same basic reason that U.S. tech companies have collaborated with Chinese censors. My belief that the Chinese security establishment is fundamentally hostile to U.S. interests and thus willfully weaponizing North Korea remains unmoved. On balance, it seems more likely that the banks are doing this to protect their own reputations, credit ratings, and share prices — just as the Chinese Finance Ministry wants them to, and just as the Defense and Foreign ministries don’t.

Also, when is the last time an American Secretary of the Treasury said anything like this?

“If China doesn’t follow these sanctions, we will put additional sanctions on them and prevent them from accessing the U.S. and international dollar system — and that’s quite meaningful,” Mnuchin said during an event at CNBC’s Delivering Alpha conference in New York on Tuesday. [….]

“North Korea economic warfare works,” Mnuchin said. “We sent a message that anybody that wanted to trade with North Korea — we would consider them not trading with us.” [Bloomberg]

Next, read this excerpt from the written testimony of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Marshall Billingslea before the House Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday. Billingslea first explains that Treasury works closely with U.S. allies, the intelligence community, and the State Department to “conduct detailed forensic investigation and analysis” to “deny North Korea its current, principal source of funds.” He goes on to say that while we prefer to have Beijing’s voluntary cooperation, we’re also perfectly willing to hit Chinese targets we don’t get it.

For instance, on August 22, we struck at the heart of North Korea’s illegal coal trade with China.  Treasury designated 16 individuals and entities, including three Chinese companies that are among the largest importers of North Korean coal.  We estimate that collectively these companies were responsible for importing nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of North Korean coal between 2013 and 2016.  These funds are used to support the Government of North Korea and the Workers’ Party of Korea, including its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  On top of that, we know that some of these companies were also buying luxury items and sending an array of products back to the North Korean regime.  On August 22 we sent two clear messages.  The first was to North Korea: we intend to deny the regime its last remaining sources of revenue, unless and until it reverses course and denuclearizes.  The second message was to China.  We are capable of tracking North Korea’s trade in banned goods, such as coal, despite elaborate evasion schemes, and we will act even if the Chinese government will not. [….]

China is even more central to a successful resolution of the crisis caused by Kim Jong-Un.  China accounts for at least 90 percent of North Korea’s exports.  North Korea is overwhelmingly dependent upon China for both trade and access to the international financial system.  China’s full and effective enforcement of UN sanctions is therefore essential.  Unfortunately, I cannot assure the Committee today that we have seen sufficient evidence of China’s willingness to truly shut down North Korean revenue flows, expunge the North Korean illicit actors from its banking system, and expel the North Korean middlemen and brokers who are establishing webs of front companies.  We will continue to work with the Chinese to maximize economic pressure on North Korea, but we will not hesitate to act unilaterally.  If China wishes to avoid future measures, such as those imposed on Bank of Dandong or the various companies sanctioned for illegal trade practices, then it urgently needs to take demonstrable public steps to eliminate North Korea’s trade and financial access. [Treasury Dep’t]

Then, watch his testimony on video.

Mr. Billingslea shows great promise. Let’s hope we have the next Stuart Levey or Juan Zarate on our hands, because we’ve never needed one more than we do now.

Of course, it’s The Boss, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, who has been pushing for this strategy for years. Two laws, one presidential election, and three nuclear tests later, Royce looks to have finally gotten his way. Speaking at a hearing of his Committee yesterday, Royce called on the feds to “target major Chinese banks, including Agricultural Bank of China Ltd. and China Merchants Bank Co., for aiding Kim’s regime.” Royce was referring to a letter he sent to Mnuchin listing some of the banks that keep showing up in Justice Department indictments, forfeiture complaints, and seizure warrants as having effectively provided sanctioned North Korean banks with indirect correspondent account services in violation of this Treasury Department regulation, and asked the Treasury Department to sanction them.

Personally, I don’t expect Treasury to do anything as blunt or binary as a total asset freeze or a 311 action to most of those banks (on that point, Billingslea told the Committee that the 311 action on the Bank of Dandong had “a very clear effect” on its operations, but didn’t elaborate). Instead, I expect Treasury to start auditing the big banks and their correspondents for compliance with its new North Korea-specific regulation, with an eye toward civil penalties and fines like those imposed against European banks that skimped or cheated on anti-money laundering compliance on behalf of Iran and other sanctioned countries. Those fines often amounted to hundreds of millions of dollars (or, in the case of BNP Paribas, $9 billion). There may be such a thing as “too big to fail,” but there is no such thing as “too big to fine.”

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The Daily NK reports that small traders are already adapting to the new measures by going to a cash-based business model. Reporters are fond of saying that Pyongyang can easily evade financial sanctions by carrying around briefcases full of cash, but that’s mistaken on several levels. First, a typical briefcase only holds just over $2 million, which is enough to fuel the sort of cross-border trade in food and consumers goods that we shouldn’t want to stop, but hardly an efficient way for a Syrian arms client or Burmese middleman to pay a KOMID dealer for a shipment of machine tools or vacuum dryers. Needless to say, it’s not nearly enough to feed a million-man army or sustain an entire government. After all, China may not really care about policing bulk cash smuggling — notwithstanding its occasional, short-lived pretenses to the contrary — but countries like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka do.

That is to say, one potential outcome of these restrictions could be to break up larger, regime-controlled trading blocs in favor of smaller traders whose wares are more likely to end up in the homes and bellies of the poor. That would be a largely positive development. Our goal should not be a complete embargo of North Korea, which is why I was actually relieved that the U.N. didn’t impose a total fuel ban in its latest sanctions resolution. Our goals ought to be to expose and destroy Pyongyang’s state-controlled overseas trading networks, to freeze its cash reserves (which sit in Chinese banks, and which Pyongyang may be depleting rapidly), to de-fund its military and security forces to give the North Korean people a little breathing space and freedom from fear, and to create the “death spiral” that will cause money launderers who can’t make their kick-up payments to defect and bring us yet more valuable financial intelligence, which will help us find and freeze yet more assets.

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FBI, Treasury & DOJ hit N. Korean enablers with secondary sanctions, forfeitures

Two months ago, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies (C4ADS) released its groundbreaking report, “Risky Business,” which used open-source business records to trace the 5,233 companies that (according to C4ADS) comprise nearly the entirety of North Korea’s “limited, centralized, and vulnerable” financial networks in China. At the time, I speculated that we hadn’t heard the last word from the FBI, the Treasury Department, and Justice Department, and yesterday, my suspicions were confirmed.

First, Treasury designated a series of North Korean, Chinese, and Russian nationals for dealing with sanctioned entities through the dollar system, in violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. The effect of the designations is to freeze any assets of those entities that are in the United States, prevent them from using the dollar system for future transactions, and prevent U.S. persons from providing them with any goods, services, or technology.

“Treasury will continue to increase pressure on North Korea by targeting those who support the advancement of nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and isolating them from the American financial system,” said Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin. “It is unacceptable for individuals and companies in China, Russia, and elsewhere to enable North Korea to generate income used to develop weapons of mass destruction and destabilize the region. We are taking actions consistent with UN sanctions to show that there are consequences for defying sanctions and providing support to North Korea, and to deter this activity in the future.” [Treasury Dep’t Press Release]

Among yesterday’s notable targets:

* China-based Dandong Rich Earth Trading Co., Ltd., for buying vanadium from sanctioned Korea Kumsan Trading Corporation, a front for the General Bureau of Atomic Energy.

* Russia-based Gefest-M LLC and its director, Ruben Kirakosyan, for procuring metals for sanctioned Korea Tangun Trading Corporation, a front for the Second Academy of Natural Sciences, which is involved in North Korea’s WMD and missile programs.

* China- and Hong Kong-based Mingzheng International Trading Limited (“Mingzheng”), the subject of this previous Justice Department forfeiture case, which acts as a front company for the Foreign Trade Bank (FTB) of North Korea. Treasury designated the FTB in 2013 for proliferation financing. The U.N. recently designated it in UNSCR 2371.

* Three more Chinese companies that are “collectively responsible for importing nearly half a billion dollars’ worth of North Korean coal between 2013 and 2016,” including Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Materials Co., Ltd. (“Zhicheng”), JinHou International Holding Co., Ltd., and Dandong Tianfu Trade Co., Ltd. Dandong Zhicheng was exposed by C4ADS as part of the Sun Sidong network in June. This is the single largest purchaser of North Korean coal. That’s going to leave a mark.

* Three Russians and two Singapore-based companies involved in providing oil to North Korea.

Transatlantic Partners Pte. Ltd. (“Transatlantic”), Mikhail Pisklin, and Andrey Serbin were designated pursuant to E.O. 13722 for operating in the energy industry in the North Korean economy. Pisklin, through Transatlantic, concluded a contract to purchase fuel oil with Daesong Credit Development Bank, a North Korean bank designated in 2016. Serbin is a representative of Transatlantic who worked with Irina Huish of Velmur Management Pte. Ltd. (“Velmur”) to purchase gasoil for delivery to North Korea. Velmur was designated for having materially assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, Transatlantic. Velmur also sold gasoil to North Korea. OFAC also designated Velmur’s executive director, Irina Huish, for acting or purporting to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, Velmur, and she has also worked with Transatlantic to circumvent sanctions. Both of these companies have attempted to use the U.S. financial system to send millions of dollars in payments on behalf of North Korea-related transactions.

Lest anyone accuse Treasury of singling China out, the designation of Singapore-based entities should send a strong message to a state that has largely overlooked the enforcement of North Korea sanctions and consequently become a haven for Pyongyang’s money laundering. I was also pleased to see Treasury go after KOMID’s slave labor racket and arms factory in Namibia, which I’ve previously written about here, here, and here, although I maintain that the NKSPEA also requires the President to sanction the Namibian entities that have knowingly dealt with sanctioned North Korean entities like KOMID. I hope Angola will be next.

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Just over an hour after Treasury released those designations, the Justice Department filed two civil forfeiture complaints against $11 million belonging to Velmur, Transatlantic, and Dandong Zhicheng. I downloaded both complaints from PACER, for the good of humanity, so you don’t have to.

Velmur complaint   |  Dandong Zhicheng complaint

You’re welcome, humanity.

This complaint alleges that Velmur and Transatlantic Partners Pte. Ltd. (Transatlantic) laundered United States dollars on behalf of sanctioned North Korean banks that were seeking to procure petroleum products from JSC Independent Petroleum Company (IPC), a designated entity. The complaint also seeks a civil monetary penalty against Velmur and Transatlantic for prior sanctions and money laundering violations related to this scheme.

According to the complaint, designated North Korean banks use front companies, including Transatlantic, to make U.S. dollar payments to Velmur. The complaint relates to funds that were transferred through four different companies and remitted to Velmur to wire funds to JSC Independent Petroleum Company (IPC), a Russian petroleum products supplier. On June 1, 2017, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Controls (OFAC) designated IPC. The designation noted that IPC had a contract to provide oil to North Korea and reportedly shipped over $1 million worth of petroleum products to North Korea. [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

Don’t focus on the fact that the putative claimants were selling fuel. Focus on the fact that they were dealing with a sanctioned North Korean entity through the dollar system, which is a felony. (U.N. sanctions only ban exports of aviation and rocket fuel, and U.S. fuel export sanctions are discretionary and have humanitarian exceptions.)

The government is seeking to forfeit $6,999,925 that was wired to Velmur in May 2017. The U.S. dollar payments, which cleared through the U.S., are alleged to violate U.S. law, because the entities were surreptitiously making them on behalf of the designated North Korean Banks, whose designation precluded such U.S. dollar transactions. The government also is seeking imposition of a monetary penalty commensurate with the millions of dollars allegedly laundered by Velmur and Transatlantic. [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

Regarding Dandong Zhicheng, a/k/a Dandong Chengtai …

The government is seeking to forfeit $4,083,935 that Dandong Chengtai wired on June 21, 2017 to Maison Trading, using their Chinese bank accounts. The investigation revealed that Maison Trading is a front company operated by a Dandong Chengtai employee. These U.S. dollar payments, which cleared through the United States, are alleged to violate U.S. law, because the recent North Korean sanctions law specifically barred U.S. dollar transactions involving North Korean coal and the proceeds of these transactions were for the benefit of the North Korea Worker’s Party, whose designation precluded such U.S. dollar transactions.

This case relates to a previously unsealed opinion from Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, which found that probable cause existed to seize funds belonging to Dandong Chengtai.  [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

As noted here. And lest we forget to give credit where it’s due …

The FBI’s Phoenix Field Office is investigating the case involving Velmur Management Pte Ltd. and Transatlantic Partners Pte., Ltd. The FBI’s Chicago Field Office is investigating the case involving Dandong Chengtai Trading Co. Ltd. Both investigations are being supported by the FBI Counterproliferation Center.

Assistant U.S Attorneys Arvind K. Lal, Zia M. Faruqui, Christopher B. Brown, Deborah Curtis, Ari Redbord, and Brian P. Hudak, all of the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia, are prosecuting both cases. Paralegal Specialist Toni Anne Donato and Legal Assistant Jessica McCormick are providing assistance. [U.S. Attorney’s Office]

Finally, let’s not forget the important work of C4ADS. Today, it will release an update to “Risky Business,” revealing that in addition to having funds in U.S. banks, the Chinese national who runs Dandong Zhicheng, Sun Sidong, owns real estate in the United States. Check C4ADS’s web site for the update.  

When I read C4ADS’s reports, I’m often reminded of the line from “Lawrence of Arabia” when Mr. Dryden (delivered by the wonderfully dry and underrated British actor Claude Rains) learns that Lawrence has conquered the Turkish base at Aqaba with an army of Arab tribesmen: “Before he did it, I’d have said it couldn’t be done.” Indeed, for years, scholars at famous think tanks assured us it couldn’t be done. First, they told us that sanctions against North Korea were maxed out. Then, they told us that Pyongyang’s networks were needles in a field of haystacks, and that the field itself was obscured and beyond our sight. And yet, without so much as a single security clearance between them, two brilliant young analysts at C4ADS mined data from open sources and traced the networks. It may be on the brink of proving all the “experts” wrong.

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Update: C4ADS writes in to say that the update was delayed, and will be released in a few days.

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OFK Exclusive: House, Senate move new North Korea sanctions legislation

Last year, Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Cory Gardner, Chairman of the Senate Asia Subcommittee, led the charge to cut Pyongyang’s access to the hard currency that sustains it by drafting and passing the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. We’ve known all along that nothing short of presenting Kim Jong-Un with an existential choice — disarm and reform, or perish — would create the conditions for a negotiated disarmament of North Korea, assuming that’s still possible. And we’ve always known that it would take several years for even aggressively enforced sanctions to present Pyongyang with that choice.

One nuclear test and multiple missile tests later, neither international compliance with U.N. resolutions nor (until very recently) U.S. enforcement of the NKSPEA has been enough to either change Kim Jong-Un’s mind or weaken his hold on power. Congress now seeks to raise the pressure on Pyongyang by closing loopholes in existing sanctions, attacking its developing sources of income (textiles, fisheries, and labor exports), catching U.S. law up with new U.N. sanctions, and most importantly, increasing penalties for foreign banks and governments that (for various reasons) haven’t complied with the U.N. resolutions.

Ed Royce continues to lead this effort with the KIMS Act, which passed the House overwhelmingly in May, and which has now been merged into Title III of the Russia, Iran and North Korea Sanctions Act of 2017, or RINKSA. But the foreign affairs committees can only go so far in attacking Pyongyang’s cash flow through financial regulation before the parliamentarians in Congress give primary jurisdiction over a bill to the financial services committees. Some of the most important remaining sanctions loopholes are within the banking committees’ jurisdiction.

Introducing S.1591, the BRINK Act

An unlikely champion has stepped into this void in the form of Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, a liberal Democrat who sits on the Senate Banking Committee. I say “unlikely,” because historically, it hasn’t been liberal Democrats who’ve led Congress’s efforts to raise the pressure on Pyongyang. This would be a good time to abandon any assumption that Democrats are soft on North Korea. Now, Van Hollen and Republican Senator Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania have introduced S.1591, the Banking Restrictions Involving North Korea Act, or BRINK Act, of 2017.  The text of the bill, which you can read herehasn’t been posted on GovTrack or Congress.gov, although the bill itself was introduced several days ago. At the outset, I’ll just get this bit of full disclosure out of the way. I’ve had some discussions with Senator Van Hollen’s staff about this bill, and ….

The BRINK Act is a tough and sophisticated piece of legislation. It will be a strong complement to both the NKSPEA and the RINKSA. This post will discuss its key provisions, starting with the definitions. A very important new one that appears in multiple places in the bill is “North Korean covered property:”

That definition potentially covers just about every transaction the North Korean government profits from. The key question, of course, is whether the U.S. can reach any given transaction in NKCP — either because a U.S. person (or a foreign subsidiary) is a party to the transaction, or because part of that transaction occurs in the United States (most likely, because a financial transaction is cleared through a U.S. correspondent bank, or because a product seeks to enter U.S. commerce).

Another significant definition is “knowingly,” which includes circumstances in which a party to the transaction “should have known” that it was prohibited.

Section 101 of the BRINK Act creates a blacklist of Chinese and other foreign banks that are failing their due diligence obligations to prevent North Korea from accessing the financial system, or are helping North Korea evade sanctions by facilitating offshore dollar clearing, or dealing with North Korea in precious metals or other stores of value. It then provides a list of sanctions that restrict the access of those banks to the U.S. financial market, add additional civil penalties to the criminal penalties under 31 U.S.C. 5322, or (at worst) block their assets here.

Like all of the sanctions under the BRINK Act, this sanction can be suspended if North Korea makes progress toward disarmament and accounting for American POW/MIAs, and can be lifted when North Korea completes that disarmament and accounting.

Section 102 requires any transactions in North Korean covered property within U.S. jurisdiction (involving a U.S. person or occurring in whole or in part in the United States) to be licensed by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control. As we’ve learned from recent actions by the Justice Department, North Korea’s banks, smugglers, and money launderers — and their Chinese bankers — tend to evade OFAC licensing requirements, despite their preference for dealing in U.S. dollars. Under this provision, any unlicensed transactions in NKCP are punishable by a $5 million fine and 20 years in prison. More importantly, the proceeds of unlicensed transactions, and property “involved in” unlicensed transactions, will be subject to forfeiture. In most cases, that’s the only form of “punishment” we have the power to impose on the targets of these activities.

Section 103 authorizes sanctions against providers of specialized financial messaging services to North Korean financial institutions, a topic I previously covered here, here, and here.

Section 104 authorizes new sanctions against foreign governments that fail to comply with U.N. sanctions, such as those that require member states to freeze the property and close the offices of designated North Korean entities (KOMID, Korea Kwangson Bank, the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Bureau 39, etc.), to expel representatives of North Korean banks and North Korean diplomats who engage in arms trafficking, and to deregister North Korean ships. For governments identified as noncompliant, the U.S. can limit exports of goods or technology to those countries, withhold foreign aid, and instruct our diplomats to vote against them getting IMF, World Bank, and other international loans. This provision may well put teeth into sections 313 and 317 of the RINKSA (discussed below) and broadens the sanctions authorities of section 203 of the NKSPEA. 

Section 105 authorizes grants for governmental and non-governmental organizations that currently provide the U.S. government with much of its actionable intelligence on North Korea money laundering — the U.N. Panel of Experts, and private groups like the Center for Advanced Defense Studies and Sayari Analytics. (Again, this complements a provision in the RINKSA — specifically, section 323, which provides rewards for informants who provide information leading to the arrest of persons responsible for North Korean money laundering or cyber attacks).

Section 106 requires a report on North Korea’s use of beneficial ownership rules to mask its interests in property (previously discussed here).

Section 107 directs the President to team up with the World Bank’s stolen assets recovery initiative to go out and find the hidden, ill-gotten gains of Kim Jong-Un and his minions, wherever in the world they can be found, block them, and release them for humanitarian use.

Section 108 will undoubtedly create headlines in South Korea — it urges South Korea not to reopen Kaesong until North Korea completely, verifiably, and irreversibly dismantles its nuclear, chemical, biological, and radiological weapons systems and any systems for delivering them.

Sections 201 through 204 call on and encourage assets and pension fund managers to divest from companies that have investments in North Korea, and immunize those fund managers from suit for any such divestment.

The KIMS Act becomes Title III of the RINKSA

For a while, it looked like all that would survive of the KIMS Act in the Senate was an untitled bill called S.1562, which removed most of the KIMS Act’s toughest provisions except for secondary sanctions on North Korea’s labor exports. But last week, S.1562 was referred, ironically enough, to the Banking Committee, taking it out of the hands of Foreign Relations. More importantly, the White House is also signaling its support for a newer bill, the Russia, Iran, and North Korea Sanctions Act. The RINKSA incorporates nearly all of the KIMS Act into Title III (full text here; scroll down to page 144).

Bob Corker, the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has expressed some concern about how easy it will be to pass a bill that big this year. I don’t have the knowledge to say whether this was a good tactical move or not, so I’ll defer to the congressional leadership on that point. (Some of us are keenly aware that Congress still has to reauthorize the North Korean Human Rights Act this year, or it will expire.) Instead, I’ll describe the provisions of Title III in a bit more detail than I described the KIMS Act before.

Section 311 amends the key provision of the NKSPEA, section 104, to expand both the mandatory sanctions of section 104(a) and the discretionary sanctions of NKSPEA 104(b). Mandatory sanctions would now apply to purchases of precious metals from North Korea, selling aviation or rocket fuel to North Korea, providing bunkering services for any U.N.- or U.S.-designated ship, reflagging North Korean ships, or providing correspondent services to any North Korean bank (Title III, section 312, also codifies a prohibition on providing indirect correspondent account services to North Korean banks).

Section 311 also expands the President’s discretionary authority to designate and sanction persons who violate U.N. sanctions, and U.S. regulations and executive orders, that apply to North Korea. These new, discretionary authorities also authorize the President to designate persons who purchase more coal and iron ore than U.N. limits allow, who purchase textiles or food products from North Korea, who transfer bulk cash or other stores of value to North Korea, and who export crude oil to North Korea (humanitarian exports of gasoline, diesel, and heavy fuel oil are exempt). Other new sanctions authorities apply to North Korea’s online gambling, sale of fishing rights, labor exports, and banking, transportation, and energy sectors.

Some of these areas are already subject to the potential for asset freezes under Executive Order 13722, but designations under section 104(a) or 104(b) of the NKSPEA can have additional and more severe consequences.

Sections 313 and 317 are secondary sanctions provisions applicable to governments that aren’t complying with U.N. sanctions. Section 313 amends and strengthens NKSPEA 203 sanctions against governments that engage in arms deals with North Korea, by denying them most foreign assistance. Section 317 creates a blacklist of noncompliant governments, which would dovetail nicely with the sanctions provisions of section 104 of the BRINK Act.

Section 314 expands the President’s authority to increase customs inspections for cargo coming from ports that fail to inspect all cargo going to or coming from North Korea, as required by UNSCR 2270. This provision is a secondary shipping sanction. It presents a very real risk that cargo coming to the U.S. from noncompliant ports may be held up longer in Customs, which could cause shippers to take their business elsewhere. As with all secondary sanctions, it forces third-country entities to choose between doing business with the U.S., or with North Korea. It also provides a list of suspect ports in China, Russia, Iran, and Syria that would be first in line to blacklisted for additional inspections.

Section 315 is another secondary shipping sanction, and a very tough one indeed — ships flagged by countries that reflag North Korean ships (a violation of UNSCR 2270 and 2321) could be denied access to U.S. ports and waterways. Vessels that have visited North Korea recently, for other than strictly humanitarian purposes, could also be banned.

Section 316 orders a report on WMD cooperation between North Korea and Iran.

Section 318 orders a report on whether SWIFT and other providers of specialized financial messaging continue to service North Korean banks, including those designated by the U.N.

Section 321 is a set of powerful sanctions against employers of North Korean labor and the sellers of products made with North Korean labor. It subjects those employers to potential sanctions under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act or the freezing of their assets. Governments that allow the use of North Korean labor could also see their TVPA status drop. A rebuttable presumption would apply to any goods made with North Korean materials or labor, excluding from U.S. commerce under section 307 of the Tariff Act.

Section 323 provides for the government to pay rewards to informers — whether these be defectors or NGOs — that provide information leading to the arrest of North Korean money launderers or persons responsible for cyber attacks.

Section 324 again raises the pressure on the State Department to declare North Korea to be a state sponsor of terrorism.

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Both of these bills attempt to attack North Korea’s third-country enablers. Legislation of this kind is necessarily creative and complex because it’s not always obvious how the U.S. can reach North Korea’s income while minimizing harm to legitimate commerce and to the North Korean people. If the target only does business with North Korea, then our next option is to target the bankers, shippers, and insurers that deal with the primary target and force them to choose between access to the U.S. or the North Korean economy. The most common ways we can influence the conduct of these enablers are (1) prohibiting U.S. persons and their subsidiaries from dealing with the target; (2) denying the target access to U.S. financial markets, trade, foreign assistance, and technology. Clearly, the U.S. has a stronger case when it enforces the terms of a U.N. Security Council resolution than when it acts alone.

While it may be too difficult to merge RINKSA Title III and the BRINK Act at this point in the congressional calendar, the two bills would go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Minor inconsistencies between the two will likely be resolved by amendments to the BRINK Act. I’ll defer to others how best to enact them, but each bill serves important purposes in making sanctions work, and in presenting Kim Jong-Un with that existential choice.

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Maximum pressure watch: The Dandong Zhicheng warrants foreshadow N. Korea-related indictments

Last fall, as America was consumed by (depending on your state of residence) post-election trauma or celebratory gunplay, China blew past the North Korean coal import caps it had just agreed to at the U.N., and the Obama administration issued what would be some of its final North Korea sanctions designations — of Daewon Industries (a coal exporter subordinate to the North Korean military) and Kangbong Trading Corporation (a coal exporter subordinate to the Munitions Industry Department and involved in the development of North Korea’s ballistic missiles).

At the time, I suggested that the administration might have shown a belated willingness to enforce the coal cap that China would not. A few months later, the Trump administration designated Paeksol Trading Company, a third coal exporter that answers to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the agency that carries out Pyongyang’s foreign intelligence operations, terrorism, and cyberattacks, and some of its arms smuggling.

The real significance of these three coal designations was not the amount of money that Kangbong, Daewon, and Paeksol might have been laundering through the United States, although Americans tend to underestimate such things. Their real significance is that by designating these three entities, the Justice and Treasury departments were laying down a marker for anyone who was knowingly dealing with them, for violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, money laundering, or conspiracy. What’s that, you say? It doesn’t matter if there’s no one here to arrest? Not to worry. The smarter strategy need not burden the taxpayers with feeding and housing crooked Chinese traders and bankers; it can be even more effective to seize their ill-gotten gains, bankrupt them, terrify other bankers into meeting their due diligence obligations, and depositing said gains into either of two U.S. government forfeiture funds that pay for the cost of other law enforcement operations.

That is to say, I don’t know how Donald Trump will make Mexico pay for the wall, but I do know how he can make the Chinese banks pay for bankrupting Kim Jong-Un.

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By now, it is now clear that Treasury’s designations of the North Korean coal exporters were only the first steps, and that there is substance, strategy, and policy behind the Trump administration’s talk of “maximum pressure.” The first clear sign came last month, when the Justice Department sued to forfeit almost $2 million Mingzheng International Trading Limited laundered for the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea (FTB). A few weeks later, it cut the Bank of Dandong off from the financial system for laundering money for North Korean arms dealer KOMID and Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation, an FTB subsidiary. (Treasury blocked KKBC and FTB in 2009 and 2013, respectively, making it illegal to do business with them inside the United States, though corrupt trading companies stepped up to help them access the dollar system indirectly, for commissions of up to 25 percent per transaction). We can now see the feds’ emerging strategy taking shape — to bankrupt the Chinese trading companies that fill His Porcine Majesty’s coffers and make them toxic to the entire financial industry.

North Korea’s latest missile test changes the administration’s calculus, said Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea security expert at the American Enterprise Institute. He expects the White House to accelerate its sanctions against Chinese firms.

A central aim of the strategy of freezing out a Chinese bank from the U.S. financial system is to chill transactions by other Chinese institutions. Access to U.S. financial markets and the dollar are critical for trade and finance around the globe. But for that effort to be perceived as a credible, said Mr. Eberstadt, the administration will have to list other Chinese banks to instill broader fear.

“If I wanted to send a message, I’d probably send several postcards,” Mr. Eberstadt said.

Analysts and senior officials from two previous administrations say the existing sanctions regime against North Korea have so far been elementary compared with the thicket of actions applied against Iran at the height of the Obama administration’s punitive actions against Tehran. That effort pushed the country into recession and persuaded the country to negotiate, although many foreign-policy experts question the effectiveness of the subsequent deal the U.S. reached with Iran. [WSJ, Ian Talley]

Then, last week, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia unsealed this seizure warrant for funds of Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Materials Company that entered eight U.S.-based correspondent banks. According to the warrant, Dandong Zhicheng processed $700 million in prohibited North Korea-linked transactions through those eight correspondents since 2009, including $52 million in the last seven months alone. Yes, that’s right — Pyongyang was laundering its money through our banks and right under our noses all along, just like I’ve been saying.

Tantalizingly, the warrant cites a cites a grand jury subpoena that isn’t published on PACER, most likely because it’s still sealed under Rule 6(e) of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure, which protects the secrecy of grand jury material. This particular warrant is a “damming warrant,” a tool prosecutors use when they have probable cause to seize evidence or contraband that regularly transits through a specified place, even if it isn’t there at the moment (such as drugs through a dealer’s P.O. box, or funds through a money launderer’s account). It means that money goes into, but not out, of the account subject to the warrant. In this case, the damming warrant lasted 14 days, which may be as long as a depositor would continue to dump money into a bank account before wondering why his checks weren’t clearing.

I found the names of the correspondent banks on PACER so that wouldn’t have to: Bank of America, Deutsche Bank Trust Company Americas, Citibank, Bank of New York Mellon, HSBC, JP Morgan Chase, Standard Chartered Bank, and Wells Fargo. So far, the feds aren’t directly targeting those banks for legal action, and neither the banks nor the feds are saying anything else about that, but read on. You’ll also see in footnote 5 of the court’s order that the feds have now begun to make good use of the NKSPEA; evidently, the prosecutors cited section 104(a)(8) it in their warrant application.

By now, the more astute readers among you have picked up on the familiarity of Dandong Zhicheng’s name. No, this isn’t the Chinese network exposed in C4ADS’s report (and mostly undone by the Justice Department’s indictment and forfeiture complaint) last year. That was Dandong Hongxiang (or DHID). Dandong Zhicheng (or DZMM) is the Chinese network exposed by C4ADS’s most recent report, just last month.

In 2016, a single company, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co. Ltd. 丹东至诚金属材料有限公司, reportedly accounted for 9.19% of total North Korean exports to China. Established in July 2005, just as North Korean coal exports began to increase as a percentage of total exports, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co. Ltd. is a commodity company based in Dandong, China. The company’s archived website states that, as of April 6, 2016, it was recording annual sales of US$250 million, mainly of North Korean coal. This fact is recorded in trade data: 97% of the company’s imports were of North Korean coal. The company’s rapid growth and subsequent market position today is best described by a 2013 statement by one of the company’s traders, “The golden time for high profit has ended. It is now difficult to expand the market share further, and small players are out of the game.” Since 2014, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co. Ltd. has reportedly been the top overall importer from North Korea in China. [C4ADS]

If C4ADS is right that North Korea’s financial networks are centralized, limited, and vulnerable, the Justice and Treasury departments can damage or destroy the Chinese conglomerates that link Pyongyang to the financial system. To hear C4ADS tell it, DZMM is the single biggest Chinese importer of coal and other products from North Korea. Reuters backs that up by citing a 2013 online profile for DZMM, which claims that it imported $250 million worth of North Korean coal that year. By contrast, UNSCR 2321 capped North Korea’s total annual coal exports at $400 million. Thus, DZMM is almost certainly Pyongyang’s single largest coal customer and one of its key links to the global economy (no matter how many “experts” say that Pyongyang is already too isolated to sanction or that those links are too well hidden to find).

Nothing in the damming warrant mentions Kangbong, Daewon, or Paeksol, but it’s almost a sure bet that at least one of them is having some cash flow problems today, if not all three. The fact that the warrant reveals that a grand jury has been empaneled is also telling. Reuters got someone at DZMM to answer the phone, but they wisely refused to comment. If the cliché is correct that you can indict a ham sandwich, we should expect to see an indictment unsealed in the coming weeks or months, and we’ll learn the names of DZMM’s banks.

Asked about the issue, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang reiterated that any infringements of U.N. resolutions on North Korea would be dealt with according to Chinese law, and that China opposed “long-armed jurisdiction”. [Reuters]

That is to say, China is opposed to unilateral sanctions, except when it isn’t. I can’t recall when I’ve ever heard China sound so upset and concerned about the prospect of paying a penalty for Pyongyang’s behavior.

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When the feds indicted Dandong Hongxiang last September, they hastened to add that the banks were not suspected of any wrongdoing. How much legal jeopardy are the banks in this time? Potentially, plenty. The court issued the DZMM warrant in May, so presumably, the affected transactions would have come after Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FINCEN) issued this new regulation, based on its finding that North Korea is a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern. The FINCEN regulation requires banks to cut North Korean financial institutions off from both direct and indirect access to the financial system, and requires due diligence of banks processing transactions to that end. Clearly, the banks should not have processed transactions for designated North Korean entities — including the FTB, KKBC, Daewon, Paeksol, or Kangbong. This time, DZMM’s Chinese banks and their U.S.-based correspondents both face higher legal burdens due to the new FINCEN regulation. The amount of jeopardy depends on how apparent DZMM’s links to North Korea were, or alternatively, how many hard questions they asked DZMM and each other about their customers.

What’s clear, regardless of the outcome, is that the banking industry has to step up its compliance game. And judging by the clarity of the message the feds are finally sending, I expect it already is.

Have all the shoes dropped? By no means. A grand jury is (or was) in session, indictments are thus more likely than not, the feds have plenty of other options short of that, and according to the Wall Street Journal, their strategy has backing at the highest levels of the administration. Our government is now promising — and taking steps to implement — a secondary boycott of North Korea’s enablers around the world, Nikki Haley is telling countries that they cannot trade with both the U.S. and North Korea, and the U.S. is moving to combine its economic power with that of South Korea and Japan (collectively, China’s three largest trading partners). Yes, China and Russia are stalling approval of a new U.N. sanctions resolution, but I’ve long felt that we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns from new U.N. sanctions anyway. What’s needed now is strict enforcement of the existing sanctions and anti-money laundering authorities, and that’s what I’ve just been talking about here.

Last year was a bad year for North Korean banks. Although the effects of that still aren’t clear, this year promises to be much worse for them. And we haven’t even gotten to the tools the Senate is about to give the feds.

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Commence Primary Ignition: Treasury zaps the Bank of Dandong for laundering Kim Jong-Un’s money

And so, the “maximum pressure” we’ve been waiting for begins in earnest. Yesterday afternoon, the Treasury Department announced a series of legal actions against Chinese enablers of North Korea’s proliferation, smuggling, and money laundering. First, Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control froze the assets of two businessmen and a shipping company. One of those businessmen, Sun Wei, was the sole shareholder of Mingzheng International Trading, the Chinese company targeted in this recent civil forfeiture action. The shipping company was sanctioned for smuggling luxury goods to North Korea, in violation of UN sanctions.

The more potentially significant action, however, was  Treasury/FINCEN’s action against a Chinese bank. The target was the Bank of Dandong, and the weapon was 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(5), otherwise known as the Fifth Special Measure of Section 311 of the Patriot Act — the same provision used against Banco Delta Asia in 2005. The action effectively makes the BoD a global pariah and cuts it off from the financial system.

[Alderaan shot first.]

Interestingly enough, if you had asked me to pick just one Chinese Bank to make an example of, I would have named the Bank of Dandong. Yes, the Bank of China was the most flagrant violator, but a large bank calls for a different strategy (which I’ll discuss below). Based on the open-source evidence, it was the BoD that had the most integration into Pyongyang’s palace economy. This 2013 report documented its ties to US- and UN-sanctioned Korea Kwangson Bank (KKBC). This report from early 2016 indicates that Chinese merchants trading with North Korea (temporarily) shifted away from the Bank of Dandong after the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 2270. A few months later, the Justice Department indicted a Chinese company, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, for laundering money for KKBC through 12 Chinese banks, including the BoD. Just a few days before, the Center for Advanced Defense Studies had revealed that DHID had an equity stake in the BoD.

To this body of evidence, the Treasury Department now adds a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to support the 311 action. Treasury accuses the BoD of facilitating money laundering by trading companies that are fronts for North Korean banks and agencies designated for proliferation. Sorry for the long money quote, but it’s all worth reading:

Bank of Dandong serves as a gateway for North Korea to access the U.S. and international financial systems despite U.S. and UN sanctions….  For example, as of mid-February 2016, North Korea was using bank accounts under false names and conducting financial transactions through banks located in China, Hong Kong, and various southeast Asian countries. The primary bank in China was Bank of Dandong.

In early 2016, accounts at Bank of Dandong were used to facilitate millions of dollars of transactions on behalf of companies involved in the procurement of ballistic missile technology. Bank of Dandong also facilitates financial activity for North Korean entities designated by the United States and listed by the United Nations for WMD proliferation, as well as for front companies acting on their behalf.

In particular, Bank of Dandong has facilitated financial activity for Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation (KKBC), a North Korean bank designated by the United States and listed by the United Nations for providing financial services in support of North Korean WMD proliferators. As of May 2012, KKBC had a representative embedded at Bank of Dandong. Moreover, Bank of Dandong maintained a direct correspondent banking relationship with KKBC since approximately 2013, when another Chinese bank ended a similar correspondent relationship. As of early 2016, KKBC maintained multiple bank accounts with Bank of Dandong. 

Bank of Dandong has also facilitated financial activity for the Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation (KOMID), a U.S.- and UN-designated entity. As of early 2016, a front company for KOMID maintained multiple bank accounts with Bank of Dandong. The President subjected KOMID to an asset blocking by listing it in the Annex of Executive Order 13382 in 2005, and the United States designated KOMID pursuant to Executive Order 13687 in January 2015 for being North Korea’s primary arms dealer and its main exporter of goods and equipment related to ballistic missiles and conventional weapons.

FinCEN is concerned that Bank of Dandong uses the U.S. financial system to facilitate financial activity for KKBC and KOMID, as well as other entities connected to North Korea’s WMD and ballistic missile programs. Based on FinCEN’s analysis of financial transactional data provided to FinCEN by U.S. financial institutions pursuant to the BSA as well as other information available to the agency, FinCEN assesses that at least 17 percent of Bank of Dandong customer transactions conducted through the bank’s U.S. correspondent accounts from May 2012 to May 2015 were conducted by companies that have transacted with, or on behalf of, U.S.- and UN-sanctioned North Korean entities, including designated North Korean financial institutions and WMD proliferators.

In addition, U.S. banks have identified a substantial amount of suspicious activity processed by Bank of Dandong, including: (i) transactions that have no apparent economic, lawful, or business purpose and may be tied to sanctions evasion; (ii) transactions that have a possible North Korean nexus and include activity between unidentified companies and individuals and behavior indicative of shell company activity; and (iii) transactions that include transfers from offshore accounts with apparent shell companies that are domiciled in financial secrecy jurisdictions and banking in another country. [FINCEN NPRM]

For a brief discussion of the BoD’s rights to challenge this action before it officially becomes final in 60 days, see this post. The Bank of Dandong can’t say it wasn’t warned; in its notice, Treasury cites its November 2016 regulation at 31 C.F.R. 1010.659, calling on banks to exercise enhanced due diligence with regard to North Korean customers, and to deny North Korean banks direct or indirect access to the financial system. That regulation was promulgated to implement Treasury’s designation of North Korea as a jurisdiction of Primary Money Laundering Concern in November, which in turn was in response to section 201 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, which effectively forced Treasury to make that designation.

Naturally, the principal congressional leaders behind passing the law that led to this result welcomed Treasury’s decision. Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee called the action “a big step,” adding, “The administration is right to target any around the world who act as financial lifelines to Kim Jong-un, and to give them a clear choice: You can do business with North Korea or with the U.S., but not both.” Royce also called on the Senate to pass his KIMS Act. Senator Cory Gardner (R-CO) issued a statement applauding the action and calling it long overdue.

It’s hard to believe that it was a complete coincidence that Treasury took this action while Moon Jae-In was in town. The message thus sent is that the U.S. and South Korea must be aligned on sanctions enforcement. We cannot have a repeat of 2005, when South Korea undermined the sanctions the U.S. imposed (Roh Moo-Hyun opened Kaesong, which became a $100-million-a-year subsidy for Kim Jong-Il, just as the Banco Delta Asia sanctions were achieving their effects). Someone in the White House clearly understands that we cannot make a coherent policy of sanctioning and subsidizing the same target at the same time. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin emphasized that yesterday’s action was directed at North Korea, not China, and expressed the hope that China would “continue to work with us” to pressure North Korea.

So noted.

What should we watch for next? First, for North Korean money men to step up their bulk cash smuggling game, or shift to non-dollar currencies or trade-based money laundering as sanctions dodges. The excellent Noon in Korea Twitter feed, for example, points to a Korean-language report that authorities in Vladivostok have seized bulk cash from North Korean money launderers who are apparently having trouble sending wire transfers (an increasingly rare case of Russia enforcing sanctions). Interestingly, Treasury says that BoD also maintains “euro, Japanese yen, Hong Kong dollar, pound sterling, and Australian dollar correspondent accounts that would not be affected by this action.” That’s why it will be important for State and Treasury to engage in some good financial diplomacy to get those third-country regulators to blacklist the BoD under their own authorities.

Also, look for the “death spiral” — North Korean money launderers who defect because they can’t pay their kick-up quotas because of sanctions, who then provide us more intelligence, leading to yet more sanctions. Rinse and repeat. (We might as well put out the word now that they’ll get better living arrangements if they bring their ledgers and laptops.) For a fascinating interview of one of those money launderers who defected after the Jang Song-Thaek purge, read this. North Korean money launderers’ fear of coming home to Pyongyang short-handed may be one of our intelligence agencies’ best tools to be a major player in the sanctions game. For reasons I explained here, that death spiral could pose a serious threat to the survival of the regime.

We should also watch for local regulators stepping in to take over the Bank of Dandong to prevent a run and shield other local banks from secondary effects. We should look for more reports that other Chinese banks are closing North Korean accounts. We should also look for correspondent banks in the United States to raise their scrutiny of Chinese banks that try to clear dollar transactions on behalf of suspicious or poorly documented customers. If FINCEN plays its cards right, Chinese banks that don’t step up their compliance game may find it difficult to clear their transactions. For more on how EU and New York state regulators have applied similar strategies, see this post.

Finally, we should look for China to send more mysterious convoys to North Korea and engage in conspicuous sanctions violations to deter any more actions by Treasury. We must be prepared to escalate in kind. Chinese retaliation may be Trump’s excuse to do what some in his administration have wanted to do all along — hit China with, say, steel tariffs. Fortunately, Trump has backed off from a threat to withdraw from NAFTA. And needless to say, the worst possible time to drop or renegotiate the Free Trade Agreement with South Korea is when China is bullying it with unilateral trade sanctions. After all, you can’t wage a trade war with everyone at once. If you trade less with China and you aren’t willing to eat a recession, you have to trade more with someone else. Given that most of the economies that compete with China as providers of low-wage labor or high-technology manufacturing (or both) are in East Asia, Trump should consider making some face-saving changes to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and reviving it as part of a long-term plan to encourage an emigration of manufacturers from China to friendlier venues in Southeast Asia and Japan. While I’m not a fan of protectionism, Xi Jinping’s behavior in the South China Sea, North Korea, and Hong Kong has also convinced me that “peaceful rise” is a self-serving delusion, and that our economic interest in robust trade with China is outweighed by the threat that we’re selling Xi the rope to hang us with.

We also need a strategy for banks like the Bank of China that may think they’re too big to sanction. The Bank of Dandong is expendable, but the Bank of China is not. Unlike the Bank of Dandong, however, the Bank of China has deep links to the U.S. financial system, is under pressure from the Chinese Finance Ministry to improve its anti-money laundering compliance, and has a branch in New York (which regularly checks in on this humble blog for … for posts like this one, I suppose). The better approach for Treasury, then, would be to use FINCEN to treat the BoC’s North Korea ties as an anti-money laundering compliance problem and, in the event the feds smell something fishy, issue subpoenas with a mind toward doing to the BoC what it did to BNP Paribas — impose heavy fines and a deferred prosecution agreement for data stripping and flunking Know-Your-Customer obligations. That is to say, there is no such thing as “too big to sanction,” merely different strategies for different targets. Another advantage of a deferred prosecution agreement, of course, is that it can force a bank to cooperate by providing financial intelligence — intelligence the feds can use to take action against other targets.

Some of these effects should be evident within the next week or two. The effects that matter most, however, are on the stability of the North Korean system. To have any chance at all for a negotiated denuclearization of North Korea, we will have to force the regime to choose between its nukes and its survival. My guess is we’ll see effects of that kind within a year or two if — and only if — we continue to press the financial, law enforcement, and diplomatic campaign needed to starve the regime of funds.

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Breaking: DOJ files $1.9M forfeiture complaint against North Korean front company in China

The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia issued a press release this afternoon announcing that it has filed a complaint under the civil forfeiture statute at 18 USC 981, to forfeit $1,902,976 from Mingzheng International Trading Limited of Shenyang, China. According to the complaint, Mingzheng conspired to evade sanctions and launder money through the United States on behalf of the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea (FTB). Treasury designated the FTB under Executive Order 13382 in March 2013, for proliferation financing. Under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a designation blocks the target out of the dollar system. Knowingly dealing with a designated person using the dollar system is a violation of the IEEPA. According to DOJ:

The action represents one of the largest seizures of North Korean funds by the Department of Justice.

“This complaint alleges that parties in China established and used a front company to surreptitiously move North Korean money through the United States and violated the sanctions imposed by our government on North Korea,” said U.S. Attorney Phillips. “Sanctions laws are critical to our national security and foreign policy interests, and this case demonstrates that we will seek significant remedies for those companies that violate them.”

[….]

According to the complaint, Mingzheng is owned by a Chinese national and is based in Shenyang, China. Mingzheng allegedly operated as a front company for a foreign-based branch of the North Korea-based Foreign Trade Bank (FTB). In March 2013, the U.S. Treasury Department designated the Foreign Trade Bank as a sanctioned entity pursuant to the Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferators Sanctions Regulations. The designation noted that the Foreign Trade Bank is a state-owned bank, and “acts as North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank.” The designation further noted that North Korea uses the Foreign Trade Bank to facilitate millions of dollars in transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network.

Under 18 USC 981, the feds can forfeit property that constitutes proceeds of, or that is “involved in,” a specified unlawful activity (as defined in 18 USC 1956(c)(7)), the money laundering statute. The specified unlawful activities alleged here are conspiracy and violations of the IEEPA.

An FBI investigation revealed that Mingzheng’s alleged activities mirror this money laundering paradigm. Specifically, Mingzheng acts a front company for a covert Chinese branch of the Foreign Trade Bank. This branch is operated by a Chinese national who has historically been tied to the Foreign Trade Bank.

According to the complaint, Mingzheng used its accounts at China Merchants Bank, Bank of Communications, and Shanghai Pudong Development Bank to launder money on behalf of the FTB. All three banks were also involved in the Dandong Hongxiang money laundering case. In that case, the Justice Department said at the time that the Chinese banks were not suspected of wrongdoing. This time, DOJ’s press release doesn’t say one way or the other; however, the transactions alleged here all predate the new Treasury regulation establishing heightened due diligence obligations for North Korea.

The government is seeking to forfeit $1,902,976 that was transacted in October and November of 2015 by Mingzheng, via wire transfers, using their Chinese bank accounts. These U.S. dollar payments, which cleared through the United States, are alleged to violate U.S. law, because Mingzheng was surreptitiously making them on behalf of the Foreign Trade Bank, whose designation precluded such U.S. dollar transactions.

Interestingly, this complaint doesn’t have anything to do with the conduct unmasked in C4ADS’s latest report this week. Rather, this is more of a sequel to the Dandong Hongxiang case filed in the District of New Jersey last September, which arose from the first C4ADS report on North Korea. The new complaint makes the link:

48. The criminal complaint identified Luo Chuanxu as one of the Dandong Hongxiang co-conspirators. The complaint indicates that Luo is a Chinese National who established multiple front companies in Hong Kong, Anguilla, and the British Virgin Islands to facilitate payments on behalf of KKBC, a sanctioned North Korean bank. Luo handled these payments as an employee of Dandong Hongxiang, and was working to assist KKBC in violation of U.S. laws. The criminal complaint noted that Deep Wealth was owned or controlled by Dandong Hongxiang, at least as of June 10, 2015.

49. Additionally, Luo facilitated numerous payments to Mingzheng using Deep Wealth Ltd. (“Deep Wealth”), a Dandong Hongxiang front company established in Anguilla, in the months prior to the transactions related to the Defendant Funds.

50. Specifically, Luo received confirmation of two large payments to Mingzheng from Deep Wealth in 2015. On July 31, 2015, Luo received confirmation from China Merchants bank showing that Deep Wealth remitted $660,000 to Mingzheng’s account ending in 6150. On August 04, 2015, Luo received another confirmation from China Merchants Bank showing that Deep Wealth remitted $900,000 to the same Mingzheng account. These payments are consistent with the North Korean money laundering activities observed between sanctioned North Korean banks via related front companies.

The complaint is available on the federal public docket system (PACER), under United States v. $1,071,251.44 of Funds Associated with Mingzheng International Trading, Ltd., No. 17-cv-01166-KBJ. Unfortunately, WordPress doesn’t like to post pdfs, but you can pull it yourself if you have a PACER account. Civil forfeiture cases have odd case names because they’re in rem actions, which means the property is the defendant. In this case, the case name is based on the first of several listed bank accounts “associated with” Mingzheng. Claimants to the defendant property then have an opportunity to file claims for the defendant property (such as innocent ownership, or contesting the connection between the property and the specified unlawful activity).

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Meet the fresh-faced kids who want you to commit a felony for Kim Jong-un

I confess that I’ve always hated Facebook, but every now and then, I see something there that interests me. One such example is the Facebook page of a group called Delegations for Dialogue, which led me to this slickly produced website. As it turns out, Delegations is run by a cast of improbably young characters promoting investment in North Korea through a “fact-finding” trip to Rason this August.

Now, I suppose there are two kinds of people in this world by now — those who’ve concluded that throwing money into North Korea has only made it more repressive and dangerous, and those who are (for whatever reason) simply incapable of drawing that conclusion. The same goes for understanding the moral hazard of investing in (and thus perpetuating) a system whose crimes against humanity, according to a U.N. Commission, are “without parallel in the contemporary world.” The same goes for those who believe anyone but Pyongyang will ever get rich from foreign investment in North Korea. Just ask Jim Rogers, Naguib Sawaris, James Passin, or a long list of other fools who have parted with their money there.

Rather, anyone who would seriously consider investing in North Korea by now can only be responsive to legal risk. As I’ve said before, I’m a lawyer but not your lawyer, so take what follows as advice to hire a lawyer of your own if you’re giving serious thought to taking part in this trip. For one thing, I found nothing on Delegations’ site about compliance with either national or U.N. sanctions — not even the standard, we-never-violate-sanctions disclaimer one sometimes sees with such programs. It quickly becomes clear that Delegations either has no idea of the legal framework it’s getting itself and its clients into or doesn’t care.

From the very first sentence, for example, Delegations shows the limits of its legal knowledge of the sanctions regime against North Korea by calling the North “the world’s most sanctioned nation,” something that still isn’t remotely accurate, either de jure or de facto, despite the significant escalation of sanctions over the last year. And while it’s usually a harmless error for an investor to overestimate a sanctions regime, the same can’t be said for underestimating one.

On examining the program materials for the August trip, things go downhill fast. For example, Delegations promises participants a tour of a local bank, but several of the banks located in Rason (and, as near as I can figure, all of them) are joint ventures, which are prohibited under UNSCR 2270, paragraph 33. Delegations promises its clients a meeting with North Korean trade officials; yet UNSCR 2321, paragraph 32, bans all public and private support for trade with North Korea, except when specifically approved by a U.N. committee. Delegations even promises participants an opportunity to open a bank account in a North Korean bank, directly contrary to UNSCR 2321, paragraph 31, which required U.N. members states to close any bank accounts in North Korea 90 days after the resolution passed (more than 90 days ago).

Then, on the banner of Delegations’ website is an image of the Pyongyang International Trade Fair, where one of the companies making an appearance this year was Green Pine, an entity designated by both the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department for its involvement in proliferation.

Fine, you say, who’s going to enforce a U.N. resolution anyway? But given the extensive evidence that North Korea continues to depend on the U.S. dollar system for trade and finance (note well: Delegations allows participants to pay their fees in euro or dollars), any favorable response to Delegations risks running smack into a very significant legal obstacle, namely Executive Order 13772, section 3 of which prohibits new investment in North Korea:

   (a) The following are prohibited:

      (i) the exportation or reexportation, direct or indirect, from the United States, or by a United States person, wherever located, of any goods, services, or technology to North Korea;

Here, the term “services” is key, and courts have generally interpreted this to include financial services. It would likely be interpreted to include promotional and marketing services on behalf of North Korean state-controlled enterprises, too.

      (ii) new investment in North Korea by a United States person, wherever located; and

This is the provision that stumped Jim Rogers, Naguib Sawaris, et al.

      (iii) any approval, financing, facilitation, or guarantee by a United States person, wherever located, of a transaction by a foreign person where the transaction by that foreign person would be prohibited by this section if performed by a United States person or within the United States.

This covers the provision of correspondent services by U.S. financial institutions and their subsidiaries, effectively blocking transactions related to investment in North Korea out of the dollar system.

   (b) The prohibitions in subsection (a) of this section apply except to the extent provided by statutes, or in regulations, orders, directives, or licenses that may be issued pursuant to this order or pursuant to the export control authorities implemented by the Department of Commerce, and notwithstanding any contract entered into or any license or permit granted prior to the effective date of this order.

This incorporates Commerce Department licensing requirements, which cover almost any transfer of U.S.-origin goods, services, and technology to North Korea, except the most innocuous consumer goods and food items classified as “EAR 99.” For more information on what all of that means, consult a more expensive lawyer than me, because violations of this executive order are punishable under section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act (20 years in prison, a $1 million fine, and a $250,000 civil penalty). And just in case you think the euro system is an easy escape valve from these prohibitions, not so much, given the new EU restrictions on financial services to North Korea, new anti-money laundering regulations, and new beneficial ownership disclosure rules.

To summarize: lawyer up, caveat emptor, or (better yet) find a safer place to put your money.   

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C4ADS: Pyongyang’s networks in China are “centralized, limited, and vulnerable” to sanctions 

Because I’ve already given too many minutes of my life to the moveable farce named Dennis Rodman, I’m devoting today’s post to something more consequential: the Center for Advanced Defense Studies’s new report exposing more North Korean financial networks in China, and dispelling the misinformation that North Korea is isolated from the financial system and thus sanctions-proof. (Full disclosure: I advised C4ADS on the drafting of the report, without compensation of course.) Money quote:

The continuing misperceptions of North Korea as the “Hermit Kingdom” or “the most sanctioned country in the world,” are fueling the narrative behind the narrowing of non-military options on the Korean peninsula. In truth, the North Korean regime, far from being isolated, is globally active throsugh its overseas networks. The impact of these misperceptions is considerable, most notably in the false belief that sanctions cannot succeed on a “closed” country like North Korea. 

Following on last September’s exposé on Dandong Hongxiang, C4ADS sifted through public databases, shipping registries, and business records to widen its focus and try to find the extent of North Korea’s financial network in China. From this, C4ADS found, contrary to a lot of widely disseminated misinformation, that North Korea’s network is centralized, limited, and vulnerable to detection and sanctions:

Centralized. For example, C4ADS dug further into the role of Dandong Hongxiang and found it to be highly centralized around key nodes. It also exposed two more networks that were similarly centralized. In one case, C4ADS started with the seizure of the M/V Jie Shun at the southern entrance to the Suez Canal with a record haul of North Korean weapons (mostly PG-7 anti-tank rockets) aboard, which I figure were probably bound for Syria. Starting from the findings of the UN Panel of Experts (see paragraphs 61 through 71), C4ADS worked backward through shipping registries and corporate records and identified the holder of the Jie Shun’s compliance document as a Chinese national named Fan Mintian. Fan runs a company called V-Star Ships.

Fan and V-Star have been operating openly in China, helping North Korea evade shipping sanctions for at least four years. V-Ships did (much? all?) of its business through the dollar system, clearing its payments through the United States. Sadly, C4ADS doesn’t identify the author of the “please do not send us any instructions” email, which sounds like the kind of thing the FBI and the Justice Department may find worthy of further investigation, to say the least.

In another case, Wells Fargo was the correspondent bank, and its compliance officers were alert and on the job, and refused to process V-Star’s transactions. People may praise bankers even less than they praise lawyers, but here’s to Wells Fargo, for taking its compliance obligations seriously and refusing to launder money for North Korea.

Yet another major Chinese network, Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Inc. (DZMM) may be an even more important node for Pyongyang than Dandong Hongxiang. DZMM buys coal from North Korea. 

Three North Korean companies are currently designated by the Treasury Department: Daewon Industries (a part of Pyongyang’s military-industrial complex, designated in December), Kangbong Trading Company (same), and Paeksol Trading Corporation (controlled by the Reconnaissance General Bureau, designated in March). If DZMM willfully engaged in dollar transactions with any of those companies after their respective designations — and I stress that I don’t see proof of all of these elements from C4ADS’s report alone — that could constitute any of several federal felonies: violation of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, money laundering under 18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(2), or conspiracy to commit either of the aforementioned under 18 U.S.C. 371. Even if you don’t arrest a single suspect, the Justice Department can bankrupt those networks by blocking their funds as they move through the financial system and forfeiting them.

Limited. C4ADS found that just 5,233 companies are involved in bilateral trade between China and North Korea, with the top ten companies controlling about 30 percent of it. If 5,233 sounds like a lot, last year, there were 67,163 Chinese companies exporting to South Korea. The concentration of wealth in the hands of a few state-controlled companies is consistent with Pyongyang’s centralized and controlling ways of running everything else. Even then, further research revealed that many of these companies were interconnected:

That means knocking over a few major networks could collapse much of the system that sustains His Porcine Majesty’s rule. C4ADS’s report even lays those connections out in charts.

And yet again, as with Ma Xiaohong, the person running a North Korean trade network turns out to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party. Arguably, our third attribute should be “inculpatory,” but it isn’t.

Vulnerable. Regular readers of the U.N. Panel’s reports will find North Korea’s methods of concealing its network aren’t qualitatively different than those used by terrorists, narco-traffickers, or other rogue regimes to launder money and evade sanctions; hence, the limiting reagents in U.S. sanctions enforcement are primarily political will and resources (cops, intelligence analysts, and lawyers). Contrary to widely-held assumptions, the networks are detectable.

The report goes on to note that because of “these networks’ reliance on the licit systems of finance, trade, and transportation … they leave behind a digital trail within public records, and other data sources, and are acutely vulnerable to targeted sanctions.” They also leave money trails. C4ADS’s conclusions reinforce what the U.N. Panel of Experts and the Justice Department have already established — that North Korea’s networks continue to launder their money through the dollar system. That’s a critical vulnerability that no U.S. president has yet had the political will to exploit. 

The last time C4ADS published a report, Treasury designations, an indictment, and a civil forfeiture complaint soon followed. Which doesn’t sound imminent this time, judging by this Wall Street Journal report covering the C4ADS report. It suggests that the Trump administration is still in the bargaining stage with Beijing, asking it to curtail the activities of Chinese companies, run by party members, that are knowingly violating U.N. sanctions. 

The Trump administration has asked Beijing to take action against nearly 10 Chinese companies and individuals to curb their trading with North Korea, according to senior U.S. officials, as part of a strategy to decapitate the key networks that support Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program.

Although there is no firm deadline, the U.S. has indicated the Treasury Department could impose unilateral sanctions on some of these entities before the end of the summer if Beijing doesn’t act, the U.S. officials said. [WSJ, Jay Solomon]

While you’re at it, don’t miss Solomon’s other recent report on another North Korean network in China, which I didn’t have time to blog about when it came out.

So as with the Obama administration, we’re back to asking Bejing to enforce sanctions it has spent the last ten years willfully violating. That similarity must owe a great deal to the fact that Trump can’t get key appointees in place to execute a policy that resembles his tough talk. For all the talk of sabotage by the “deep state,” the effect of slow appointments is that the administration ends up abdicating a lot of policy decisions to holdovers and similarly disposed career civil servants. In any event, let no one say that sanctions against North Korea can’t work, if we ever muster the will to use them.

~   ~   ~

Update: At the Washington Post, Anna Fifield adds:

Targeting just a few pivotal Chinese companies could severely disrupt North Korea’s ability to circumvent international sanctions and buy illicit goods — and could even cause its entire overseas network to collapse, according to a report out Tuesday.

[….]

The new report, by Washington-based research group C4ADS, lays out multiple ways for Beijing to cut off North Korea’s trading routes to the outside world, if it wanted to. It also found a Chinese citizen who was conducting large amounts of trade with North Korea while serving as president of a company in the United States — a status that would allow him to open bank accounts and send or receive shipments.

“By being centralized, limited and ultimately vulnerable North Korean overseas networks are, by their nature, ripe for disruption,” C4ADS researchers wrote in the report, titled “Risky Business.”

[….]

There is still plenty more to be done, C4ADS writes. “Although to date economic coercion has been ineffective in persuading North Korea to abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapons, this does not mean it cannot work,” the researchers say. 

On the contrary, targeting key companies could cripple multiple networks across multiple countries simultaneously, they write, because so many of these firms are intertwined.

[….]

The C4ADS researchers said focusing on these kinds of logistical “chokepoints” could cut off North Korea’s centralized, global system of illicit finance. 

For example, the Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co., which was sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department last year — sending a sudden chill through the border city that acts as North Korea’s main commercial gateway to the outside world — is one of 18 companies that make up the Liaoning Hongxiang Group. This suggests the potential for an indirect effect if one company is stopped from helping North Korea, perhaps disrupting numerous other linked companies.

“Based on what we’re seeing in the data in terms of the reach and scope of these networks and the limited nature of the system that they live in, and the contamination with illicit activity, there is inherent value to enforcement actions,” said David Thompson, a senior analyst at C4ADS.  [WaPo, Anna Fifield]

See also this Washington Post editorial, citing the C4ADS report.

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Trump & North Korea: In search of maximum pressure (Pt. 1)

Last week’s North Korea designations from the Treasury Department were the second round since Inauguration Day, and like the first round, they omitted the essential element for sanctions against North Korea to be effective: secondary sanctions to deter Chinese | banks and companies from enabling North Korean proliferation and money laundering, as they’ve been | doing for so long, and so flagrantly. On this point, I need not repeat Anthony Ruggiero’s arguments, so I’ll just refer you to his post.

In other words, this still isn’t the “maximum pressure” the Trump administration promised us, and continues to promise us. Rather than designate the dozens of North Korean front companies and agents identified in the U.N. Panel of Experts’ recent reports, OFAC continues to designate North Korea’s support network in China incrementally. The only Chinese connections in this round were the designation of Korea Zinc Industrial Group, which has offices in Dalian, and the designation of (U.N.-designated) Koryo Credit Development Bank official Ri Song-hyok, who “has reportedly established several front companies in order to procure items and conduct financial transactions on behalf of North Korea.” (Under UNSCR 2321, paragraph 33, China and other states were supposed to have expelled all representatives of North Korean financial institutions last year. The fact that Ri is still doing business in Beijing speaks volumes.)

How does one explain this not-even-remotely-maximum pressure? One obvious possibility is that Xi Jinping snookered Trump into quietly withdrawing his support for secondary sanctions against North Korea’s Chinese enablers. If so, “maximum pressure” will certainly fail. A second possibility is that this Japanese report that President Trump gave Xi Jinping 100 days to tame His Porcine Majesty is accurate, in which case the 100-day grace period will expire in mid-July. In any event, the evidence that China is holding up its end of the bargain is hardly conclusive, and whatever China is doing isn’t enough to moderate Pyongyang’s provocative behavior. For all of the recent rhetorical differences between Pyongyang and Beijing, Pyongyang seems to be as skeptical as I am that China will exert serious, regime-threatening pressure on it.

There are still some straws an optimist can grasp. The designation of the entire North Korean military (specifically, the State Affairs Commission, the Korean People’s Army, and the Ministry of People’s Armed Forces) may seem symbolic at first glance, but it could be a step in the direction of designating the many military-affiliated trading companies that fund it. If OFAC proceeds to do so, it will fill various banks’ anti-money laundering compliance databases with the names, addresses, and passport numbers of North Korean agents, which will trigger heightened due diligence obligations under 31 CFR 1010.659, which could pave the way for subpoenas, civil penalties, and deferred prosecution agreements against non-compliant large banks, and the potential loss of correspondent relationships by non-compliant smaller banks. Going after the security forces that suppress dissent and the trading companies that collect the revenue that sustains them would be a sound targeting strategy if the administration pursues it aggressively. Again, whether the Trump administration has the political will to do this remains to be seen.

Another hopeful sign is that the Trump administration doesn’t seem to be sparing Russia with regard to secondary sanctions.

OFAC designated Moscow-based Ardis-Bearings LLC and its director, Igor Aleksandrovich Michurin, pursuant to E.O. 13382 for their support to Tangun.  Ardis-Bearings LLC is a company that provides supplies to Tangun, and Michurin is a frequent business partner of Tangun officials in Moscow. [….]

OFAC designated the Independent Petroleum Company (IPC) pursuant to E.O. 13722.  IPC is a Russian company that has signed a contract to provide oil to North Korea and reportedly has shipped over $1 million worth of petroleum products to North Korea.  IPC also may have been involved in circumventing North Korean sanctions.  OFAC also designated one of IPC’s subsidiaries, AO NNK-Primornefteproduct. [OFAC Press Release]

Leo Byrne has more information on the designation of IPC here.

Both rounds of designations by the new administration show a continued focus on the use of Executive Order 13722’s sectoral sanctions to strike at critical elements of Pyongyang’s economic support, including coal and energy. The designation of the Korea Computer Center is interesting is that it was not for hacking (see section 104(a)(7)), but for raising revenue for the military by selling software (see section 104(a)(8)). Also, Treasury finally got around to designating Kim Su-Kwang, the North Korean Reconnaissance General Bureau agent who infiltrated the World Food Program’s offices in Rome.

~   ~   ~

The other sanctions news last week was the Security Council’s approval of Resolution 2356, which contains no new substantive provisions, only designations. On one hand, designations are certainly better than a “presidential statement,” and it’s some consolation that the U.N. is now pursuing North Korean officials who are responsible for censorship (the Propaganda and Agitation Department) and terrorism (the Reconnaissance General Bureau), suggesting an approach more holistic than one that treats Pyongyang’s proliferation as an isolated problem. The designation of Kangbong Trading Company, a military-affiliated coal-merchant designated by the Treasury Department in December, is worth watching. We’ll see if it means China will actually comply with the coal cap. I’m not holding my breath for that, but China’s agreement to a U.N. designation should hush China’s objections if the administration later decides to indict the purchasers of Kangbong’s coal later, for money laundering, conspiracy, and violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act.

On the other hand, this is a Chapter VII resolution in name only. There are no new restrictive measures, such as a ban on labor exports, or Pyongyang’s unconscionable export of food for cash while its people starve. The number, quality, and geography of the designations does not suggest a collective U.N. seriousness about uprooting North Korea’s proliferation network in China, Malaysia, Singapore, or Africa. The failure to designate Air Koryo, a key smuggling tool of the regime, is disappointing, and the failure to designate entities exposed in the most recent Panel of Experts report — notably Glocom and its affiliates — is simply egregious. While Resolution 2356 is certainly better than nothing, it’s also much less than what’s needed to enforce sanctions and make them work. As such, it’s a depressing sign of weakness from the Trump administration and disunity from the Security Council.

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The MKP Group’s website is a feast of mendacity, quackery, possible illegality, and web design hilarity

The aftermath of Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, and the attention it has drawn to North Korea’s connections to Malaysia, continues to yield new revelations about Pyongyang’s illicit finances overseas. Reuters, having already exposed Glocom as a front for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, now adds to what the Wall Street Journal reported two weeks ago about the MKP Group.

To summarize Reuters’s extensive and detailed report on MKP: it was founded by a North Korean named Han Hun-il and a Malaysian named Yong Kok-yeap in 1996. According to its own promotional materials, MKP “operates in 20 countries in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, piling up contracts worth at least $350 million,” mostly for construction (such as building houses in Africa that Africans can’t afford). Reuters has since located a defector named Lee Chol-ho, a former employee of Han. Lee says Han is a former official in North Korea’s Reconnaissance General Bureau and has funneled cash to Pyongyang for years — through Jang Song-thaek until his execution in 2013, and more recently, to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Although Reuters and Lee couldn’t say how Pyongyang used those earnings, we can safely assume it wasn’t to buy grain or baby formula.

MKP’s website — which appears to have been designed by Borat — lists a much earlier founding date of 1964, and a diverse set of products and services it provides, many of them either sanctioned by the U.N. (luxury yachts) or having dual-use applications (machine tools). I’ve posted numerous screenshots from MKP’s site here, for reasons that will become evident later.

Given MKP’s operations in Africa and its involvement in exporting art from North Korea (see “entertainment”), it probably also has links to the Mansudae Art Studio, whose subsidiary, Mansudae Overseas Project Group, exports those grandiose statues North Korea builds in Africa and the Middle East, most infamously this one in Senegal, where half the population reportedly lives below the poverty line. Mansudae Overseas Project Group also works in collaboration with U.N.- and U.S.-designated arms dealer KOMID in Namibia, and was itself designated by the U.S. Treasury Department last December for “exportation of workers from North Korea, including exportation to generate revenue for the Government of North Korea or the Workers’ Party of Korea,” under Executive Order 13722. The U.N. Security Council banned the export of statues by North Korea last November 30th, in Resolution 2321.

MKP is also involved in North Korea’s chain of clinics in Africa, using North Korean doctors, despite North Korea’s own chronic shortage of doctors to care for its people. A report by Radio Free Asia a year ago exposed that some of those clinics in Tanzania provided quack medicines to their patients. The Tanzanian government subsequently closed two of those clinics.

[* Actual clinics may not contain white people.]

It also lists several trading companies as subsidiaries (lower left sidebar).

Fortunately, when Reuters called, MKP’s reaction wasn’t at all suspicious.

Han, also known as Dr. Edward Hahn, hung up the phone and blocked a Reuters reporter on his messaging app when contacted for comment.

MKP did not respond to requests for comment on Lee’s assertions. The company issued a statement dated March 23 saying MKP had “no reason to hide the fact” that Han is North Korean. It denied owning ICB or any other North Korean bank and said nobody from the United Nations has contacted the company. [Reuters, James Pearson, Tom Allard and Rozanna Latiff]

For reference, here’s what the U.N. Panel said in its 2014 report about the relationship between MKP and ICB:

According to Reuters, “ICB is among several banks the U.N. is currently investigating for possible breaches of various U.N. Security Council resolutions.” U.N. resolutions ban joint ventures with North Korean banks. If the U.N. designates MKP or ICB, member states would be obliged to shut them down, freeze their assets, and expel all of their representatives. The Treasury Department could (and should) designate those joint ventures, and penalize any foreign banks that provide the joint ventures or North Korean banks with the correspondent services and thus help them access the financial system.

At this point, things get really ridiculous:

In its March 23 statement, MKP said its website had been “hacked” to insert ICB under its list of service companies and place a “doctored photograph” of “MKP personnel”, including Yong, visiting ICB’s office in Pyongyang.

A search of archive.org, a database of old websites, shows ICB has been listed on MKP’s website since 2009, including under its earlier name, Sungri Hi-Fund International Bank. As of April 10, ICB was still listed on the website.

Sharp-eyed readers will recall that in this post, dated February 27th, I posted this screenshot from the MKP Group’s website:

[Diamonds are forever. So are screenshots.]

As of this morning, you can still click the “services” tab of the MKP Group’s website and see this image. So evidently, the North Koreans would have us believe that MKP’s website was hacked a month before Reuters called, and yet its website — the website of a multi-million-dollar international conglomerate — remained functional and unrepaired for the entire time until March 23rd, and even today. MKP’s website also lists another bank as a part of its group:

Click here for a summary of what we know about North Korea’s use of Malaysia as a base of operations for smuggling and money laundering, here for a summary of U.N. financial sanctions against North Korea, and here for a list of North Korean banks that are or aren’t sanctioned by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department.

This report reinforces what I’ve said before: the combination of good investigative reporting and good investigative work by the U.N. Panel can expose and destroy the financial networks that fund Pyongyang. These are not fly-by-night operations, but long-established and well-capitalized groups that have put down deep roots in states where corrupt officials and ex-officials allow the North Koreans to ingratiate themselves. Uproot those networks, expel their representatives, and freeze their assets, and Pyongyang will have lost hundreds of millions of dollars and decades of work. It’s anyone’s guess why our own government has abdicated the work of investigation and coercive diplomacy to reporters and the U.N. Panel. Imagine what could be accomplished if our government devoted the political will and the resources to using the tools that Congress has given it.

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What the Trump administration’s first North Korea sanctions designations tell us

Last Friday’s designations of 11 individuals and one company by the Treasury Department are the first North Korea designations of the new Trump administration. So what do they tell us about the direction of the administration’s North Korea policy?

On the positive side, the designation of a North Korean coal company affiliated with the military should, in theory, send a strong message to its Chinese clients, although they don’t seem to have taken the last hint. Also on the positive side, the designated individuals are mostly front-men for North Korean banks, trading companies, arms dealers, and shippers in Russia, China, and Vietnam. It’s good that North Korean operatives in China — and Russia — aren’t off-limits. As I explained here, those governments are already obligated to expel most of these people by U.N. Security Council resolutions.

These are the kinds of targets we should be focused on to uproot His Porcine Majesty’s proliferation and money laundering networks, particularly in China. The designations will send a strong message to Russia and China to kick them out. They’ll also fill the Treasury Department’s SDN database — and consequently, the anti-money laundering compliance software the banking industry uses — with the names and addresses of North Korean agents and front companies. That will help make it harder for those agents’ bankers to defend their due diligence and compliance later, if and when Treasury files civil penalty cases against them.

On the not-so-positive side, this still isn’t what needs to be done — holding the Chinese banking industry accountable for breaking our laws and laundering North Korea’s money through our financial system. For a critical reaction to the new designations, see Anthony Ruggiero’s tweetstorm. As Anthony notes, all 12 entities designated last Friday are North Korean, so these are not the secondary sanctions we need to make North Korea sanctions effective.

Maybe it was too much to expect that some of North Korea’s Chinese front-men would be designated right before Xi Jinping arrives at Mar-a-Lago. I’ll be very interested in seeing what happens after Xi departs. If Trump really is the corrupt empty suit his harshest critics say he is, Xi Jinping will come to Mar-a-Lago, offer to turn a few Lotte stores into Trump hotels, and do what China always does when under sufficient pressure about North Korea — lie like a cheap rug until our national case of Attention Deficit Disorder sets in again.

Overall, however, I may be slightly less pessimistic than Anthony. For one thing, there is this report on the outcome of the administration’s policy review, which sounds like what I’d expected. For another, I interpret Trump’s statement that he’ll act against North Korea with or without China’s help as a threat to act against Kim Jong-un’s Chinese bankers and freeze his accounts. For another, although I might have expected Treasury to sanction Chinese enablers and trading companies now, I would not expect it to start nuking banks just yet. Instead, Trump’s message to Xi should be that the Bank of China is under investigation by the Treasury Department, soon to be followed by the Bank of Dandong and the 12 other banks that held accounts for Dandong Hongxiang and its many front companies and shell companies.

Finally, Trump can drop a veiled hint that ports that don’t inspect North Korean cargo, as U.N. Security Council resolutions require, can expect to be targeted with extra customs inspections. That could drive shippers away from those ports and damage the economies of those cities. Then, Trump would have someone leak that to the press and watch for signs like this.

As of today, however, it’s possible that none of those banks are under investigation because the investigative agencies simply don’t have enough staff to do it all. We’ll turn to that topic, and to this letter from senators Cory Gardner and Ed Markey, in tomorrow’s post. A full list of those designated last Friday below the fold (“continue reading” –>).

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Investigative journalists expose North Korean front companies in Malaysia

The coincidence of the Panel of Experts report’s release and the assassination of Kim Jong-nam continues to focus some of the finest investigative journalism I’ve seen in years on North Korea’s front companies in Malaysia. First up, the MKP Group, a Malaysian-North Korean joint venture that earned “tens of millions of dollars” through construction projects in Zambia, Angola, and elsewhere in Africa. To further reinforce Bill Newcomb’s comments about the links between slave labor, money laundering, and proliferation, MKP often uses North Korean laborers, who “typically must give most of their earnings to the regime as a condition of going abroad, according to human rights groups.”

The Panel of Experts is now investigating MKP and its affiliates in Malaysia, including at least one bank, for sanctions violations. So are the Malaysian authorities, who recently shut down another large North Korean front company, Glocom after the U.N. Panel and Reuters exposed it:

Malaysia is specifically trying to determine whether North Korea used the Southeast Asian nation as a hub for earning foreign exchange in violation of the U.N. sanctions, which were designed to cut Pyongyang off from global financial flows, according to a person familiar with the inquiries. [Wall Street Journal]

A specific focus is International Consortium Bank, which I wrote about earlier this week, as a likely violation of U.N. prohibitions against joint ventures and correspondent relationships with North Korean banks, and of new requirements that member states close foreign branches of North Korean banks and expel their representatives. The key to MKP’s welcome until now appears to have been close ties to local politicians:

MKP is now the main focus of Malaysia’s inquiries, though other companies are also in the mix, according to the person familiar with the Malaysian investigations. MKP lists former Malaysian government officials, including a former senior member of parliament, as shareholders or directors in corporate registration documents. [….]

In the late 2000s, MKP built 5,000 low-cost houses in Angola’s capital, Luanda, using North Korean workers, and later sold them to the government for $50,000 each, a total of $250 million, the person familiar with MKP’s business activities said. Angola’s government didn’t reply to requests for comment.

In Zambia, the chief executive of a private joint venture between MKP and the state-run National Housing Authority said it had built 428 houses there and was constructing another 253, sometimes with North Korean workers.

“We don’t really have a problem with” using the workers because MKP is a Malaysian-registered entity, said the chief executive, Charles Holland. He said he last met Mr. Han, the MKP director, about five years ago.

Two Zambian government officials said that Mr. Han, also known as Han Hun Il, has been an influential businessman in the copper-rich African nation for almost two decades. MKP implemented $50 million in contracts in Zambia between 2006 and 2015, according to a foreign ministry official.

But in the end, few Zambians could afford the houses, most of which are empty now.

In Malaysia, MKP sought to hire or award ownership stakes to politically connected Malaysians to build local support and win contracts, including a road-building deal, another person familiar with the company’s activities said.

The person said people awarded stakes included Malaysia’s former navy chief, Adm. Mohd. Ramly bin Abu Bakar, a shareholder of an MKP subsidiary, according to corporate records, and a senior retired Malaysian member of parliament, Karnail Singh Nijhar, who is a director of the subsidiary.

Other information I’d heard about MKP is that they may have a history of not necessarily building the things they contract to build. One possible explanation for that is that African client was really paying for some other good or service, and the construction contact was a sham. Or, maybe the financing just fell through. When the Panel has completed its investigation of ICB, it should look into CCCL Bank and other MKP companies next.

Then, there is this report, via a site I hadn’t heard of before now, that North Korea was running a sham IT start-up in Kuala Lumpur, which raises strong suspicions about links to hacking:

From the heart of the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur as well as the nearby financial center of Singapore, North Korean spies covertly ran a technology business that, until last year, publicly sold a wide array of products including iPhone apps, web development apps and even cybersecurity tools. Virtually nobody knew who really controlled the company until recently. Even today, nobody is entirely sure how it worked.

Now, CyberScoop has learned that United Nations officials are currently looking into the business as part of larger inquiries into sanctions violations by North Korea.

The connection between Adnet and the network of front companies was first uncovered by Reuters journalists who, alongside U.N. officials, began last year looking into the individuals and entities connected to North Korean companies in Malaysia. Many of the companies were said to be directed by the Reconnaissance General Bureau (RGB), the North Korean intelligence agency responsible for clandestine operations and cyber activity. Over the course of the investigation and publication of the U.N. report, most of the companies stopped operations. [Cyberscoop]

In most cases, these operations either involve blocked North Korean entities like the RGB, which member states are obligated to seize and shut down, or whose continued operation violates other provisions of the U.N. sanctions. There will be no excuse for the Malaysian (and Zambian, and Angolan) governments to let these companies continue operating, and no excuse for our own Treasury Department to allow them continued access to our banking system.

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UN report shows China, others are still havens for North Korean money laundering

Due to a convergence of other commitments, it took me longer than I’d hoped to digest the U.N. Panel of Experts‘s latest findings about North Korea and financial sanctions. If you only read the bottom line and stop there, you’ll either be discouraged or find support for an argument that sanctions are futile.

210. Despite expanded financial sanctions adopted by the Security Council in resolutions 2270 (2016) and 2321 (2016), the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has continued to access the international financial system to support its activities.  Financial networks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have adapted to these sanctions, using evasive methods to maintain access to formal banking channels and bulk cash transfers to facilitate prohibited activities. At the time of writing, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea circumvention techniques and inadequate compliance by Member States are combining to significantly negate the impact of the resolutions.

But you shouldn’t just stop there. If you read the entire report, you’ll find ample evidence that with sufficient resources and political backing, competent investigators can find, expose, and destroy Pyongyang’s financial networks. The Panel has shown us how it’s done. But even if financial sanctions can work, they are not yet working. Pyongyang’s money launderers are experienced and sophisticated, and they’re still accessing the financial system. Member states (read: China, and to lesser degrees, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Namibia, Zambia, and the Seychelles — and by default, the U.S.) aren’t complying with, are ignoring, or aren’t enforcing the resolutions.

In many cases, Pyongyang’s money launderers are the same people who’ve plied their trades from the same Chinese cities for years with impunity. Increasingly, they work through local agents, from offices in storefronts or hotel rooms. They may have formalized links to North Korean banks, or they may conceal those links and work through trading companies to move funds and conduct transactions on their behalf. These techniques aren’t new; they’re the same ones terrorists, drug lords, and other rogue states have used since the passage of the Bank Secrecy Act years ago. What else isn’t new? Pyongyang’s reliance on the dollar system:

Most of the financial activity investigated by the Panel was denominated in United States dollars, euros and renminbi. (Para. 213.)

To help you understand the meaning of the Panel’s findings, I’ve organized this post around a few simplified rules I synthesized from seven different U.N. Security Council resolutions. I’ve also blended in information from last year’s report and from other relevant posts I’ve written about North Korea’s finances.

Some caveats are also appropriate here. First, two of these resolutions (2270 and 2321) are fairly recent. Some member states whose names don’t start with “ch” and end in “ina” may still have been in the process of complying when the Panel’s reporting period closed.

Second, in this post, I use “money laundering” to mean the deceptive financial practices that Pyongyang uses to conceal the ownership, origin, and use of its funds to help it violate U.N. sanctions. In most cases, those practices will also meet the U.S. (or domestic) legal definition, but not always. In U.S. law, “money laundering” is defined in two fairly complex statutes, but can be simplified to mean moving money that’s “involved in” certain categories of unlawful activity, either because the funds are proceeds of a crime (say, spending the take from a bank fraud scam), are the corpus of a crime (such as a payment by a blocked person through a U.S. correspondent), or are being used to conceal a crime (for example, Pyongyang Restaurant profits that are commingled with drug money to obscure the illicit origins of the latter).

Rule 1: Member states must freeze the assets of designated entities.

States must freeze the assets of designated persons and “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available to or for the benefit of” them. That includes denying them financial services, closing their representative offices, preventing their agents from participating in joint ventures or business arrangements, and expelling those agents. UNSCR 1718, para. 8(d); UNSCR 2094, paras. 8 & 11; UNSCR 2270, paras. 15 & 32; & UNSCR, 2321, para. 3.

Who’s Breaking it: China, mainly. The Panel suspects that at least four U.N.-designated North Korean banks or their aliases continue to operate from Chinese territory:

  • Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation, which operated from Dandong until the Dandong Hongxiang indictments, and still has fronts in the British Virgin Islands, the Seychelles (where this blog has a readership, for some reason), and Hong Kong. (Para. 224.)
  • Daedong Credit Bank, which has offices in Dalian, Dandong, Shenyang, and may actually be majority Chinese-owned, in violation of the prohibition against joint ventures with North Korean banks (see below). Daedong Credit Bank recently hit the headlines again when it appeared in the Panama Papers. (Para. 225.)
  • Korea Daesong Bank also has offices in Dalian, Dandong, and Shenyang. (Para. 225.)
  • Ryugyong Commercial Bank, a suspected front for Daedong Credit Bank, operates in Beijing, where it processes transactions for designated entities and finances arms deals. (Para. 227.)

Rule 2: Banks must cut off correspondent relationships with North Korean banks.

Member states must “prohibit financial institutions within their territories or subject to their jurisdiction from . . . establishing or maintaining correspondent relationships with DPRK banks,” except with the Committee’s advance approval, and requires member states “to terminate such . . . correspondent banking relationships with DPRK banks within ninety days from the adoption of this resolution.” UNSCR 2270, para. 33.

Who’s Breaking it:

  • The unnamed Chinese banks that maintain correspondent accounts for Daedong Credit Bank, which is helping Glocom, its officers (Rang Su-nyo) and its front companies (Pan Systems Pyongyang, Pan Systems Singapore, International Golden Services, and International Global Systems) process U.S. dollar and euro transactions through U.S. and European correspondent banks. (Paras. 233-38.) That’s a violation of the money laundering statute — specifically 18 U.S.C. 1956(a)(2), because as the Panel notes, Glocom is a front for the Reconnaissance General Bureau, which itself is designated by both the U.S. Treasury Department and the U.N. The obvious predicate offense for a money laundering charge would be the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. If those banks aren’t violating the IEEPA, they may be in violation of their customer due diligence obligations under 31 U.S.C. 5318(i). I’d like some names, please.
  • China, by hosting Kim Chol-sam, an extraordinarily prolific money launderer who is a director of DCB Finance and is linked to Daedong Credit Bank, both of which were designated by the Treasury Department for WMD proliferation in 2013. According to the Panel, Daedong Credit Bank and DCB Finance ran millions of dollars in U.S. dollar wire transactions through our financial system through Korea Daesong Bank (also designated). He also facilitated bulk cash smuggling from China to North Korea. Kim sometimes poses as a South Korean, maintains a series of front companies in China, including Dalian Daxin Electronics, Hongdae International Ltd. (HK), Pan Ocean Investments, Ltd. (set up with help from a Hong Kong company’s Beijing office), Win Talent International Ltd. (ditto). Those links, by the way, are to the Panama Papers database. (Paras. 226-28.)

Rule 3: States must close foreign branches of, and joint ventures with, North Korean banks.

Member States shall “prohibit in their territories the opening and operation of new branches, subsidiaries, and representative offices of DPRK banks,” to “prohibit financial institutions within their territories or subject to their jurisdiction from establishing new joint ventures,” except with the Committee’s advance approval, and requires member states “to close such existing branches, subsidiaries and representative offices, and also to terminate such joint ventures [and] ownership interests . . . within ninety days from the adoption of this resolution.” UNSCR 2270, para. 33.

Who’s Breaking it: China, Russia, Malaysia, Zambia, Egypt, and others.

It’s important to note that the ban on joint ventures with North Korean banks is only as recent as last March, and much of the information below is from the Panel’s previous reports that predate those resolutions. Having said that, I saw nothing in the 2017 report indicating that any of the banks listed below were closed. All of these are North Korean banks with foreign branches, North Korean joint ventures with foreign banks or companies, or both:

  • A bank that calls itself — I am not making this up  — “the International Bank of Martial Arts in Pyongyang,” continues to do renminbi money transfer services from Dandong. According to the Panel, it “has served foreign clients with renminbi savings, loan, and transfer services; has undertaken transactions in China; and has issued guidelines in Chinese and English to foreign clients on how to transfer renminbi from China.” (Para. 216; Annex 15-2).
  • The Central Bank of the DPRK has branches in China, where (my conjecture, based on Dodd-Frank disclosures) it likely sells gold, in violation of UNSCR 2270, para. 30. (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • The Chinese Commercial Bank in Rason, established in 2013 by the China Gold Trade Exchange of Dalian. (Para. 219.)
  • The First Credit Bank, a/k/a Cheil Credit Bank, a/k/a Jeil Credit Bank, which the Panel’s 2014 report describes as a “possible joint venture.” (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • First Trust Corporation, a joint venture with the notorious Japan-based front group Chosen Soren to finance trade with North Korean firms based in Russia, which would now violate UNSCR 2321, paragraph 32. (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • Golden Triangle Bank in Rason, which provides support for trade with North Korea, also in violation of UNSCR 2321, paragraph 32. (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • Hana Banking Corporation, which the Panel’s 2014 report described as a “joint stock company arranged between Central Bank of DPR Korea and Central Bank of China.” It “operates branches in China and deals in RMB.” (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • Hi-Fund Bank, a subsidiary of the MKP Group, a joint venture with Malaysian parters with a branch in Zambia, which I mentioned in this post. (Para. 218.)
  • International Consortium Bank, another MKP subsidiary. (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • Korea Joint Bank, a/k/a Korea Joint Operation Bank, Chosun Joint Operation Bank, a joint venture bank “established by Korea International General Joint Venture Company and Association of Korea Traders and Industrialists in Japan.” Japan has usually been a strict enforcer of North Korea sanctions. I wonder if this bank is still operating. (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • Koryo Commercial Bank, a/k/a Korea Commercial Bank, a joint venture bank; established by North Korean and U.S. residents — and what I wouldn’t give to know who those U.S. residents are, although I can venture some guesses (which I’ll keep to myself). According to the Panel, it may be related to Kumgangsan International Group. (2014 Report, Table XXXIV.)
  • Orabank, which, as George Turner informed us, is a joint venture between Orascom and the Foreign Trade Bank of North Korea, which the Treasury Department designated in 2013 under Executive Order 13382 for financing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This connection was a legal risk for Orascom and a far greater one for its former CEO, Naguib Sawaris, a U.S. citizen.
  • Kumgyo International Commercial Bank. Per the latest Panel report, this bank is run jointly with the China Inner Mongolia Horizon (Hong Yuan) International Trade Corporation, Ltd. and affiliated with Korea Chongsong Mining Company. (North Korea’s mining industry is now under U.S. sectoral sanctions for its frequent involvement in WMD proliferation and arms trafficking.) The bank is registered with the Chinese Ministry of Commerce as a venture, and is 49 percent owned by a Russian company, Menggely K LLC,  of the Tuva Republic. It facilitates exports of pearls and magnesium. (Para. 220.)
  • First Eastern Bank, Rason. This is a joint venture with the Chinese company Unaforte, which is linked to our friend Jim Rogers. It’s involved in mining, investment, and the (now prohibited) gold trade. We’ve already covered that North Korea is banned by U.N. resolutions from exporting gold. Remember also Leo Byrne’s reports exposing that Unaforte exported gold jewelry to Hawaii, which would violate Executive Order 13570 unless the exporter had an OFAC license (place your bets). It has a branch in Yanbian and is licensed by the North Korean government, but claims not to be subject to either North Korean or Chinese jurisdiction. It advertises that it does not require proof of identity, which sounds like an open invitation to money laundering. (Para. 221.)

To the extent these banks still operate, they’re all violating U.N. sanctions. If the new administration is looking to show seriousness of purpose about cutting off North Korea’s finances, it could start by designating all of them under section 104 of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act or its implementing order, Executive Order 13722. That would reinforce the message that Chinese banks should not continue to do business with them.

Rule 4: Member states must expel persons working for North Korean banks.

Persons working on behalf of North Korean financial institutions or U.N.-designated entities must be expelled for purposes of repatriation to North Korea, and are ineligible for any immigrant, non-immigrant, or transit visa, unless their presence is required for a legal, medical, or humanitarian reason. UNSCR 2270, para. 15; UNSCR 2321, para. 33.

Who’s Breaking it: China and Malaysia, mostly. See, e.g., Kim Chol-sam and his entire network, the Glocom network, and all of the foreign branches of North Korean banks I mentioned above. The branches are supposed to be closed, and their North Korean employees expelled.

Rule 5: Member states must restrict bulk cash transfers to and from North Korea.

The Security Council “[e]xpresses concern that transfers to the DPRK of bulk cash may be used to evade” the sanctions resolutions, “and clarifies that all States shall apply” the “enhanced monitoring” measures set forth in paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 to bulk cash transfers to and from North Korea. Although the language “expresses concern” appears non-binding at first glance, it refers back to mandatory provisions. UNSCR 2094, para. 14.

Who’s Breaking it:

  • China, for hosting bulk cash smuggler and money launderer Kim Chol-sam and his network.
  • Glocom, and also Malaysia for letting Glocom get away with it.
  • Singapore and the UAE, which failed to stop a North Korean diplomat who was carrying $1.4 million in gold through their airports. (Para. 243.)

Who isn’t:

  • The government of Bangladesh deserves an honorable mention for seizing that $1.4 million in smuggled North Korean gold (para. 243) and this Rolls-Royce, which was shipped from Malaysia by a North Korean diplomat …

[to raise money to buy infant formula and TB medicine, naturally.]

Could that have something to do with North Korean hackers picking the Bangladesh Bank as a victim? Could be, but then how do you explain the killing of Kim Jong-nam in Malaysia? Either way, Bangladesh’s good-faith enforcement has earned it a supportive response to that crime.

Rule 6: Member states must limit extensions of credit to North Korea.

States should not enter into new commitments for grants, financial assistance, or concessional loans to the DPRK, except for humanitarian and developmental purposes directly addressing the needs of the civilian population, or the promotion of denuclearization, and should exercise enhanced vigilance with a view to reducing current commitments. Strictly speaking, this is non-binding language. UNSCR 1874, para. 19.

Who’s Breaking it:

  • China, if Sam Pa and the 88 Queensway group are still in partnership with KKG, Korea Daesong General Trading Company, and Bureau 39.
  • Moon Jae-in next year, unless we stop him.

Rule 7: Member states must close bank branches and accounts in North Korea.

Member States must take the necessary measures to close existing representative offices, subsidiaries or banking accounts in North Korea within 90 days, unless the Committee determines on a case-by-case basis that such offices, subsidiaries or accounts are required for the delivery of humanitarian assistance or the activities of diplomatic missions in the DPRK or the activities of the United Nations or its specialized agencies or related organizations or any other purpose consistent with the objectives of this resolution. UNSCR 2321, para. 31.

Who’s Breaking it: China mostly, as noted above.

Concern: Member states should “exercise vigilance” over North Korea’s slave labor exports.

This isn’t a binding rule, but the Security Council expressed “concern that DPRK nationals are sent to work in other States for the purpose of earning hard currency that the DPRK uses for its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes, and calls upon States to exercise vigilance over this practice.” UNSCR 2321, para. 34.

The is provision isn’t, strictly speaking, so much about the exploitation of the workers as it is about the fact that their “wages” are stolen, laundered, and used for prohibited purposes.

Who’s Ignoring it:

  • China, the largest single user of North Korean labor;
  • Russia, which just signed a new contract for North Korean labor;
  • Namibia, whose banks process dollar payments to U.N.-designated Mansudae Overseas Project Corporation, as “wages” for its workers. (Para. 245.)
  • Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and other Gulf states, as illustrated by Sri Lanka’s seizure of $167,000 in cash, gold jewelry, and watches, which the courier said were wages of construction workers in Oman. Uh huh. (Para. 244.)
  • Malaysia, as discussed.
  • More research about that topic here, herehere.

Conclusion: What we learned about North Korean money laundering from the Panel’s report

First, North Korea increasingly relies on non-bank front companies that essentially operate as banks, and would thus qualify as financial institutions under the U.S. legal definition in 31 U.S.C. 5312.

Second, North Korea still prefers dollars (see, e.g., paras. 114, 224, 226 n.206, 227, 234, 238 & 244). Many of those dollar transactions continue to be run through U.S. correspondents (see, e.g., paras. 217 n.194, 226 & 235), who need to step up their game.

239. Stronger sanctions have led networks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to employ greater ingenuity in using formal banking channels and bulk cash transfers to facilitate their illicit endeavours. At the same time, Member States that host nationals of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, that control the movement of persons across their borders, that regulate banks and that regulate correspondent banks have not made a commensurate investment in their own capacity to enforce the strengthened sanctions. Consequently, agents of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea have been able to mask both their illicit activities and their links to the country.

A new Treasury Department regulation at 31 C.F.R. 1010.569, implementing the ban on correspondent accounts and imposing new due diligence requirements, may give them an incentive to do just that. The fact that Pyongyang still relies on the dollar system gives us more options to intercept those dollars.

While some of that cash is eventually smuggled into North Korea, most of it is probably commingled with illicit (or as the case may be, licit) funds and deposited into Chinese banks by small-time operatives (who do what’s known as “structuring”). From there, it’s transferred into other accounts (“layering”) and spent on stuff the elites in Pyongyang like. Then, the goods are shipped in by boat or Air Koryo (the final stage of money laundering: “integration”).

None of these methods are more sophisticated than those of Al Qaeda (with its use of hawalas), Colombian drug lords (with their clever use of trade-based money laundering), or Iran (with its talent for using gold as a sanctions dodge). The Panel’s report proves that these networks can be uncovered by skilled and determined investigators. So, for that matter, did C4ADS, and the Treasury and Justice Departments. It’s by no means impossible to find and destroy these networks with enough of the right people. The Panel has identified dozens of potential North Korean targets that should be expelled and have their assets frozen. Maybe now we have to political will to make that effort, but do we have enough cops, lawyers, and diplomats to get the job done?

For two other good analyses of the report and how to respond to its findings, read this one, by George Lopez and this one, by Richard Nephew. Lopez, in particular, dispels the myth that North Korea is already isolated and therefore financially impregnable. Instead, the Panel’s report proves that Pyongyang remains dependent on offshore finance.

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Royce introduces bill to toughen sanctions on N. Korea; subcommittee holds hearing

The big news yesterday was that Ed Royce, the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has introduced a sequel to the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act, or NKSPEA. You can read the full text here, but briefly, the bill —

  1. Expands the mandatory and discretionary sanctions in NKSPEA 104 to match the sanctions added by UNSCR 2270 and UNSCR 2321. It also adds a few more, like authorizing Treasury to sanction anyone who imports food from North Korea — a gravely immoral thing when so many North Koreans are going hungry, and when the state obviously isn’t using its food export revenue to buy gbrain to feed them.
  2. Provides new authorities to ban North Korea from financial messaging networks. Of course, SWIFT is reportedly disconnecting all North Korean banks, but this provision now becomes important to prevent SWIFT’s less reputable competitors from taking that business on.
  3. Codifies the Treasury Department’s new regulatory ban on providing indirect correspondent account services to North Korean banks.
  4. Toughens the NKSPEA 203 provisions denying aid to states (mostly in Africa and the Middle East) that buy weapons from North Korea.
  5. Toughens the NKSPEA 205 provision allowing U.S. Customs to increase inspections of cargo coming from ports that aren’t meeting their UNSCR 2270 obligations to inspect North Korean cargo. It also creates a blacklist of non-compliant ports, including Dandong and Dalian. That could put pressure on those ports to either meet their inspection obligations or shun North Korean cargo altogether. Think of it as the customs equivalent of Banco Delta Asia. But I haven’t even told you the best part yet.
  6. Creates the authority for secondary shipping sanctions against North Korea by giving the Coast Guard the authority to ban ships, shippers, and flags that violate U.N. shipping sanctions from U.S. ports and waterways. That will make for some lively discussions with the Ways and Means and Transportation committee staffers. It also takes a page from the South Koreans and Japanese who’ve enacted similar measures. That would effectively bring the U.S. into a coalition with those nations to isolate North Korea from the global trade system. Given that this coalition would now include China’s three largest trading partners, that’s potentially quite a powerful measure. And as I’ve noted more than once, let there be no doubt that it was China that started the trade war over North Korea. This is how we stand by our allies and deter economic bullying.
  7. Increases sanctions against companies that employ North Korean slave labor, and threatens to raise the tier status of those governments under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act.
  8. Adds a new condition for the suspension of sanctions — that North Korea permit Korean-Americans to have unrestricted and unmonitored meetings with their North Korean relatives before they die.
  9. Offers rewards to defectors, and maybe other informants, who provide information leading to the arrest or conviction (in any country) of persons involved in North Korean WMD, cyberattacks, or money laundering.
  10. Piles on more pressure to designate North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism.

And we still haven’t even seen the member amendments, which promise to be lovely. (On a related note, the Senate is also moving separate legislation to sanction the companies that have participated in China’s island-building in the South China Sea.) This promises to be an action-packed year for all you sanctions geeks out there. The dark circles under my eyes should be proof enough.

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The other big event yesterday was the first hearing run by the new Chairman of the Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, Ted Yoho of Florida. As of yesterday morning, I hadn’t really viewed Yoho as a thought leader on Asia policy, but after his performance yesterday, I’ve reassessed that view. Yoho ran a tight ship, kept the proceedings on time, and despite this being his debut, projected a sense of calm command of the proceedings. More importantly, both Yoho and new Ranking Member Brad Sherman came in extremely well-briefed on the issue, and in full command of the facts. There was undoubtedly some first-rate staff work behind that. They’ve clearly digested the Panel of Experts’ latest, something that I’m still in the process of doing. You should really watch the whole thing:

The panel members were Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation, Professor Sung-Yoon Lee of the Fletcher School, and former State/Treasury official Anthony Ruggiero, who has added much-needed expertise to the debate about sanctions policy and administration. I thought all three were extremely effective in breaking through to the members, but then, I consider all three men to be good friends, so I won’t even pretend to be objective. I’ll just post a money quote from each of them. First, Klingner sets the stage for where we find ourselves today, and why Americans should care:

Professor Lee’s statement, frankly, is some of his best work. It’s a must-read, not just for its historical insight about the often-strained relationship between China and North Korea and what that doesn’t mean, and not just for its insight into North Korea’s political objectives, but for the beauty of its prose (which Chairman Yoho also praised).

Ruggiero then brings his practical experience and careful research to the often-underinformed discussion of sanctions as a policy tool. And if I had to pick one panelist whose testimony really seems to have broken through to the Committee members, it’s probably Ruggiero, who reformatted their c-drives about a lot of junk analysis about sanctions:

Thanks for that!

Ruggiero also had some choice words for SWIFT, which I’ll let you read on your own.

With the Trump administration about to conclude its policy review and clearly headed in the direction of a harder line that will emphasize sanctions without sparing Chinese violators, this advice will undoubtedly find audiences in the White House, the National Security Council, and the State and Treasury Departments. My guess is it’s going to be a tense dinner at Mar-a-Lago when — or if — Xi Jinping comes around. But as I’ve said before, our relations will China may have to get worse before they can get better.

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Will China cooperate on North Korea sanctions? That depends on which “China” you mean.

I often talk about the importance of pressuring China to pressure North Korea. When I do, people sometimes cock their heads like my dog would do when he heard a new sound, and ask me whether China would cooperate with that. I answer this question with a question of my own: “Which China?” China, for all its top-down authoritarianism, isn’t a monolith. Like most societies, it has different constituencies with different views that fear different risks and pursue different interests. That’s why my answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second.

If you mean the Chinese defense establishment, which is constitutionally hostile to the United States and sees itself as in a zero-sum, Cold War competition against us, the answer will always be “no.” That China is our enemy by its own choice. Its default is to view anything that’s bad for America as good for China. Its attitude is probably hardening.

If you mean the Chinese foreign policy establishment, the answer will also be “no,” but its obstructionism might be tempered by strategic compromises or interrupted by some temporary feints at compliance (currently, the so-called coal ban). It’s almost as hostile to us as the defense establishment, but it pursues its ambitions more intelligently. It may despise Kim Jong-un, or it might just be pretending to, but either way, it probably despises us even more. Still, it recognizes the value of playing us, and it does that very well.

If you mean the Chinese businesses that willingly deal with North Korea, the answer will be “no” as long as North Korea’s checks clear, and it will be “yes” the instant they don’t, and it will be “yes” the instant the businessmen learn — to their abject horror — that some other businessman who deals with North Korea just had his bank accounts frozen and couldn’t make the payments on his Buick and that America can really do that.

If you mean the Chinese Finance Ministry, it will be “no” until we raise the cost of non-cooperation to unsustainable levels, by threatening to depress the levels of growth it must sustain to pay pensions for its aging population and maintain economic stability. That is its mission. And interestingly enough, China’s terrible reputation for financial integrity is a growing threat to that mission. I’ll explain in a moment.

If you mean the Chinese banks, it will be “no” until subpoenas start to rain down on their New York branches and their lawyers tell them that the only way to avoid the fate of BNP Paribas is to cooperate with the feds and settle for reduced civil penalties and deferred prosecution.

It’s a misnomer to refer to a “Chinese” banking industry that relies on access to foreign finance, and thus subjects itself to foreign regulation. Going global can cause some culture shock for banks that are used to China’s lax Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulation. For the last few years, Treasury’s AML focus has been on European and Middle Eastern banks dealing with Iran, so Chinese banks have had a (mostly) free ride from the feds. But New York and EU regulators haven’t been as laissez-faire about AML compliance and have been handing them some stiff fines. That’s why People’s Bank of China officials recently “pledged a tougher fight against money laundering.”

Behind this clarion call by Beijing’s bank supervisors was an unnerving realization that some of the nation’s biggest banks had left themselves vulnerable to anti-money-laundering sweeps by regulators abroad.

This vulnerability stems from ambitious overseas expansions in recent years by the Bank of China (BOC), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and other powerful, state-owned lenders. As of June, according to official data, China’s biggest bank, the ICBC, was operating 412 branches in 42 countries, while the BOC had 564 branches in 46 countries. China Construction Bank (CCB) counted 140 overseas branches, and Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) had 17. [Caixin Global]

Here comes the culture shock.

At home, according to banking experts who spoke with Caixin, Chinese banks have been operating in a regulatory environment that’s generally soft on money laundering rules for financial institutions. Some of these banks have thus learned the hard way that many regulators outside China not only diligently enforce rules designed to prevent dirty transactions, but are also eager to slap violators with heavy fines and even imprisonment.

And also, don’t usually take bribes.

The BOC, the nation’s fourth-largest lender, reportedly agreed on Feb. 17 to pay 600,000 euros ($634,000) to settle a money laundering case involving its branch in Milan, Italy. The branch had been targeted by Italian investigators since June 2015 who had looked into whether BOC helped clients transfer to China about 2 million euros linked to criminal activity.

In addition, a judge in the Italian city of Florence on the same day handed four BOC-Milan branch employees two-year suspended prison sentences after they were convicted of breaking Italy’s anti-money-laundering laws.

A Hong Kong-based expert on money laundering who declined to be named said while the fine against BOC-Milan was comparatively “moderate,” the criminal convictions were “surprising.” The decisions in Italy followed a November decision in the United States by New York state’s Department of Financial Services, which fined a local ABC branch $215 million for illicit money transfers.

By now, it has become reasonably clear that the Trump administration will soon revoke the sub rosa immunity the Obama administration had given Chinese banks to launder North Korea’s money. Not only will Chinese banks have to worry about EU and state regulators, they’ll have to start worrying about the Treasury Department, too.

That isn’t just a worry for China’s smaller, shadier banks. Some of the biggest banks in China were servicing North Korean customers until at least early 2016. Others were named in the Dandong Hongxiang case for doing so months later. Some of those banks have branches in New York. Those without still depend on U.S. correspondents to process their payments through the financial system, just as Banco Delta Asia once did.

The correspondents, in turn, have legal duties to comply with Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and AML regulations, which will require them to ask questions about the names, nationalities, and passport numbers of their customers; whether they’re sanctioned by the UN, Treasury, or the EU; and whether their business addresses are, say, shell companies in the British Virgin Islands, or empty offices next door to the local North Korean embassy. Treasury expects banks to hire qualified compliance specialists, employ highly specialized compliance software, and implement AML and KYC compliance procedures.

If Treasury begins to enforce those rules, banks will skimp on AML and KYC compliance (such as) at their own peril. If you click those last two links, you’ll see that I just cited examples of Chinese banks that got away with lax compliance in the past. The Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) is an example of one that didn’t:

After the branch opened in August 2012, Yu worked to boost the ABC’s interbank-transaction business through trade financing and other services. His goal was to quickly expand assets at the branch, which was ABC’s only operation in the United States.

But Yu’s strategy apparently exposed the branch to compliance risks, as his favorite businesses involved transactions executed on behalf of other banks’ customers. And ABC had limited access to information about those customers.

Yu maintained his strategic focus despite a 2014 warning by the central bank pointing to risks associated with overseas banking services.

Until a whistleblower came along, anyway.

But that same year, Taft’s allegations landed on investigator desks at the New York Fed, triggering a probe that led to a Fed order in September: ABC was given 60 days to deliver a plan for fixing risk management flaws and enhancing money controls at the New York branch.

The fines were levied two months later after New York state regulators determined ABC had deliberately failed to scrutinize dubious money transfers.

Now for the part where the bank rolls over, cooperates, and promises to get its compliance act together to reduce its penalty.

Sources close to the matter said an original fine of $500 million was eventually cut by more than half following negotiations between regulators and ABC-New York. The branch also agreed to hire an independent, regulator-approved monitor to assess its business.

“After the incident, ABC (headquarters in China) held several meetings emphasizing managing overseas branches and subsidiaries,” said a source at the bank.

Nevertheless, the bank’s reputation had taken a major hit. In November, for example, the credit rating agency Moody’s said the regulatory penalty had highlighted oversight failures at ABC and would have a negative effect on the bank’s credit rating.

Political subversion and human intelligence can be another wedge to incentivize banks to make better choices. Every arrest or defection of a North Korean diplomat or financier has the potential to expose more parts of Pyongyang’s financial network and implicate the banks that skirted the law to do business with them. If banks begin to see North Korea itself as unstable, more of them will begin to see North Korean customers as legally risky. The best possible way for a bank to mitigate that risk? File a Suspicious Activity Report with the Treasury Department and cooperate.

All of which is a long way of saying that China’s generals and diplomats almost certainly won’t cooperate on North Korea, at least not voluntarily — and not yet. That will make it harder to enforce sanctions (especially trade sanctions) but by no means impossible, because the Chinese banking industry has to cooperate. China’s generals and diplomats may not want commercial banks to be AML compliant, but China’s central bank does. Banks in Malaysia, Russia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Tanzania will face the same choice, of course, but China is the lynchpin, the Abbottabad of North Korea’s illicit finance. That finance is absolutely essential to Kim Jong-un’s capacity to buy, sell, import, export, pay, fuel, repair, and sustain. The Workers’ Party almost certainly keeps most of its money in Chinese banks. After all, what are you going to buy with all the money in Pyongyang, especially now that correspondent relationships with North Korean banks are banned by both the U.N. and the U.S.? Answer: stuff imported from China, bought with dollars held on deposit in a Chinese bank.

Freeze those dollars and Pyongyang is living on borrowed time. Sure, you can smuggle bulk cash a few million dollars at a time. Sure, you can run uninsured rust-buckets across the Yellow Sea with their lights and transponders turned off, carrying away whatever wares that cash buys, at least until all the (uninsured) ships smack into rocks, get T-boned by oil tankers, or get seized at the entrance to some canal or another. Drug cartels can run that way for years, but that isn’t a sustainable model for ruling over 23 million increasingly informed and resentful people.

Now that I’ve laid this foundation, you’ll understand the legal and policy implications of my upcoming post about what U.N. Panel of Experts report, and what it just told us about China, North Korea, and money laundering.

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N. Korea, Lazarus & SWIFT: Are the white hats closing in? (Update: SWIFT cuts off remaining N. Korean banks)

In the last month, major news stories about North Korea have bombarded my batting cage faster than I’ve been able to swing at them. I’d wondered when I’d have a chance to cover Katy Burne’s detailed story in the Wall Street Journal about the empty half of the SWIFT glass — that despite its recent decision to disconnect three U.N.-designated North Korean banks, it’s still messaging for banks that are sanctioned by the Treasury Department, but not by the U.N.:

The U.S. Treasury-sanctioned banks that remain on Swift include the state-owned Foreign Trade Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s primary foreign-exchange bank; Kumgang Bank; Koryo Credit Development Bank; and North East Asia Bank, according to people familiar with the network. A search on Swift’s website listed active bank identifier codes for the institutions as of Monday.

The U.S. designated for sanctions the Foreign Trade Bank in 2013, saying it facilitated weapons of mass destruction programs in North Korea. The other three were sanctioned in December as the U.S. targeted entities it said supported the North Korean government and its weapons programs following the Asian nation’s September 2016 nuclear test.

The apparent sanctions gap raises questions about how easily North Korea could move currency through alternative banking channels, something the U.N. said it has been known to do in the past through fronting companies. [….]

While based in Brussels and regulated by Belgian authorities, the company intersects daily with U.S. financial institutions, processing tens of millions of payment instructions, including through a large facility in Culpeper County, Va. [WSJ, Katy Burne]

I won’t sugar-coat this; the fact that these dirty and important (to His Porcine Majesty) banks can still use SWIFT is a major hole in our sanctions, and whether Congress and the administration are willing to close it will be a test of how serious they are about stranding Pyongyang’s money.

I can understand some of SWIFT’s likely arguments against that, mind you: first, SWIFT has earned much good will from Treasury for favors it has done them on terrorist financing; second, there may be other potential providers of the same service that may be less responsive to U.S. legal pressure. Fair enough, but whoever takes up that slack in SWIFT’s wake should be sanctioned to swift extinction (yes, intended). For a list of North Korean banks indicating which ones are designated by the U.N. and the U.S., see this post, and scroll down.

Meanwhile, Symantec now claims it has additional evidence that the hacker group Lazarus, which it had previously linked to the robbery of the Bangladesh bank using hacked SWIFT software, is responsible for that attack, and more:

A North Korean hacking group known as Lazarus was likely behind a recent cyber campaign targeting organizations in 31 countries, following high-profile attacks on Bangladesh Bank, Sony and South Korea, cyber security firm Symantec Corp said on Wednesday.

Symantec said in a blog that researchers have uncovered four pieces of digital evidence suggesting the Lazarus group was behind the campaign that sought to infect victims with “loader” software used to stage attacks by installing other malicious programs.

“We are reasonably certain” Lazarus was responsible, Symantec researcher Eric Chien said in an interview.

The North Korean government has denied allegations it was involved in the hacks, which were made by officials in Washington and Seoul, as well as security firms.

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

Symantec did not identify targeted organizations and said it did not know if any money had been stolen. Nonetheless, Symantec said the claim was significant because the group used a more sophisticated targeting approach than in previous campaigns.

“This represents a significant escalation of the threat,” said Dan Guido, chief executive of Trail of Bits, which does consulting to banks and the U.S. government. [Reuters]

Further down, the report suggests that one or more Polish banks may also have been hit, but “Reuters has been unable to ascertain what happened in that attack.” The headline having promised evidence of attribution to North Korea, however, the text of the story itself left me wanting more. It’s not news that Symantec has linked Lazarus to North Korea; Symantec did that almost a year ago. Nothing in Reuters’s report adds evidence to that attribution.

Nor does this story suggest that there’s enough evidence for the feds to act against Lazarus, although it does hint that the FBI is investigating. Jurisdiction shouldn’t be an issue in the Bangladesh case; money moved through the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Attribution is the real question. Depending on what they can prove, the feds would have many potential charging options, including bank fraud, wire fraud, the Computer Crime and Abuse Act, racketeering, and money laundering. Furthermore, there are anti-hacking provisions in both the NKSPEA (section 104(a)(7)) and Executive Order 13722, which means that if the feds could find any of Lazarus’s money, or any assets of Lazarus’s co-conspirators — regardless of whether those assets can be traced to any of these specific acts — the Treasury Department could freeze them, and the Justice Department could forfeit them.

And needless to say, the indictment of a state actor would be a big deal, for a lot of reasons.

So far, I don’t see enough in the open sources to support that, but it’s good news that the white hats are working diligently on this. If they can attribute this to senior officials in the North Korean government — most likely, within the Reconnaissance General Bureau — then it would be our legal basis to go after the RGB’s assets, which we’ve recently learned include some sophisticated and global commercial operations. This story bears close watching.

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Update:

Reuters is reporting that SWIFT will disconnect the remaining North Korean banks:

SWIFT, the inter-bank messaging network which is the backbone of international finance, said it planned to cut off the remaining North Korean banks still connected to its system, as concerns about the country’s nuclear program and missile tests grow. SWIFT said the four remaining banks on the network would be disconnected for failing to meet its operating criteria.

The bank-owned co-operative declined to specify what the banks’ shortcomings were or if it had received representations from any governments. Experts said the decision to cut off banks which were not subject to European Union sanctions was unusual and a possible sign of diplomatic pressure on SWIFT. [Reuters]

Now that SWIFT has gotten itself right with Jesus, I would like to implore everyone, everywhere to lay off SWIFT. It’s absolutely true that if we turn SWIFT into a political surrogate for our sundry political conflicts, the world’s dirtiest banks will just take their business elsewhere. That’s not a trend we want to encourage. SWIFT has usually been a responsible member of the financial community, sometimes at great cost to itself.

My argument all along has been that (1) North Korea deserves to be an exception to that rule because (2) North Korea is a unique threat to the financial system — not to mention, to all of humanity — as documented in (3) seven U.N. Security Council Resolutions, a Patriot Act 311 determination, and a call for “countermeasures” by the Financial Action Task Force. You can’t say that about any other country on earth right now — not even Iran. I can’t reconcile messaging for North Korean banks with any of those authorities. And if any competitor tries messaging for the FTB, it’s especially important that the Treasury Department should have the authority to obliterate them (which is why Congress should still proceed with something like the BANK Act).

Having said all that, I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that diplomatic pressure was the main reason for this most welcome decision. “Operating criteria” could mean a lot of things, but it’s a slightly better fit with “massive global bank fraud” than it is with “diplomatic pressure.” If there are more developments in the Lazarus investigation than the Reuters report makes apparent, and if those developments convinced SWIFT that it had unwittingly helped the North Koreans defraud its more reputable clients by sharing its software with them — and their hackers — that would be a perfectly good (and equally plausible) reason for SWIFT to have cut the North Koreans off.

Yet again, the North Koreans are tactically brilliant criminals. And yet again, they’re strategically moronic. It’s a rare and happy day when someone finally holds them to account for it.

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Yay, it happened! Jim Rogers got burned by hyping North Korea!

And just like that, crackpot investment advisor Jim Rogers joins the distinguished company of Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-Hun, Roh Jeong-ho, and Orascom’s Naguib Sawaris, all of whom won Darwin Awards in North Korea. I’ve previously written about Rogers and his enthusiasm for North Korea and its worthless currency. That OFK post caught the eye of a New York Times reporter, who has just published a story on the relationship between Rogers and his self-described business partner, a Chinese entity called Unaforte:

“It’s very exciting. The kid has been opening up North Korea,” Mr. Rogers said in an interview, referring to Kim Jong-un, the country’s ruler.

But North Korea can be a murky place to tread — as Mr. Rogers’s experience shows.

A Hong Kong company called Unaforte that is involved in several North Korean businesses named Mr. Rogers as a shareholder a year ago, according to a corporate filing. Investing in a North Korean business like that would probably violate American sanctions if it happened now, though experts say it was legal at the time. [NYT, Patrick Boehler & Ryan McMorrow]

In this case, “experts” means me. Rogers’s investment came just a month before President Obama signed Executive Order 13722, which imposed sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation, mining, energy, and financial services industries. That E.O. was enough to drive investor and fund manager James Passin out of North Korea. Before that, however, our threadbare North Korea sanctions probably didn’t prohibit what Rogers did. Still, staying one step ahead of the law doesn’t mean one isn’t stepping in something.

Mr. Rogers said he gave Unaforte $100 as a token of good will but never expected that it would name him as a shareholder. Asked about his stake in the company in October, he interrupted an interview with The New York Times to call Unaforte and told the English-speaking sister of its founder that the company had agreed he could not be a shareholder.

Speaking into his phone, Mr. Rogers said, “I know I have told you, ‘Never, never, never.’”

Unaforte no longer lists Mr. Rogers as a shareholder in its filings but will not release shareholder records that might show more details about the shares given to Mr. Rogers. Officials at Hong Kong’s corporate registry said they were investigating whether Unaforte is complying with the city’s disclosure laws. Unaforte did not respond to emailed questions for comment. [NYT]

The Times chronicles how Rogers quickly distanced himself from Unaforte once its reporters started asking questions (“I make speeches for hundreds of people.”). At one time, Unaforte featured Rogers prominently in its promotional materials. Its founder, Zhao Chunhui, calls himself “Jim Rogers’s business partner in China.” Then, a Unaforte website marketing its North Korea investments — a bank, an office park, and a stake in a gold mine — “went offline after The Times began to ask about its businesses.” On March 17, 2016, two days after President Obama signed EO 13722, Rogers wrote to Unaforte, asking “that it return his $100 and take back an unspecified number of shares.”

To make matters worse, Unaforte also drew a mention in the latest report of the U.N. Panel of Experts, for setting up a bank in the Rason Special Economic Zone. Sorry, my WordPress installation doesn’t read hanja:

221. A Hong Kong, China, company, Unaforte (?????????), with a Yanbian branch (?????) established the First Eastern Bank (????) in Rason in 2014 as a subordinate enterprise to provide financial support and loans to Chinese investors in mining and real estate projects in Rason (see annex 15-11). The bank is licensed by the Central Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (see annex 15-12) and provides loans to Chinese individuals and companies in the Rason area. In its promotional materials, Unaforte claims: “The [First Eastern] Bank is fully independent and does not require proof of identity. It is not subject to the jurisdiction of China or [the] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and is not required to report to the Chinese government or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government!” (see annex 15-13). The Panel notes that foreign nationals holding accounts in banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be a violation under resolution 2321 (2016).

Under sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council last year, the Far Eastern Bank must now be closed. Specifically, Paragraph 31 of UNSCR 2321, adopted on 30 November 2016, requires Member States to close all existing representative offices, subsidiaries or banking accounts in the DPRK within 90 days. UNSCR 2270, paragraph 33, requires Member States to “prohibit in their territories the opening and operation of new branches, subsidiaries, and representative offices of DPRK banks,” to “prohibit financial institutions within their territories or subject to their jurisdiction from establishing new joint ventures,” except with a U.N. Committee’s advance approval, and requires member states “to close such existing branches, subsidiaries and representative offices, and also to terminate such joint ventures [and] ownership interests.”

Previously, Leo Byrne of NK News also reported on Unaforte’s exports of gold jewelry to Hawaii. The gold was allegedly mined in North Korea; thus, exports to the U.S. could have violated a 2011 executive order prohibiting imports from North Korea, except pursuant to a Treasury Department license. Rogers comes across looking like a fool, a charlatan, and a generally amoral person, but from a strictly legal perspective, not even he can be faulted for ex-post facto sanctions violations. There’s no evidence that Rogers knew of the gold jewelry exports to the U.S., but if he did, that might be his greatest legal risk.

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