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 —
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.
Toughens the NKSPEA 203 provisions denying aid to states (mostly in Africa and the Middle East) that buy weapons from North Korea.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
~ ~ ~
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.
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 becomereasonablyclear 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.
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 bankingindustry 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.
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 didthatalmost 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.
~ ~ ~
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.
“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.
Since last year, this blog has covered SWIFT’s continued provision of financial messaging services to North Korean banks, despite suspicions that North Korea was involved in stealing almost $100 million from the Bangladesh Bank by hacking into SWIFT’s messaging software. Later, I wrote about an effort in the last Congress to ban North Korean banks from SWIFT, mirroring a sanction that was one of our most effective measures against Iran. SWIFT is effectively the postal service of the financial system, sending instructions between banks to credit and debit accounts to facilitate payments. Losing SWIFT access makes it slow, costly, and inefficient for a bank to operate.
The U.N. Panel of Experts’ latest report, released over the weekend, now confirms that SWIFT continued to provide services to three North Korean banks — Bank of East Land, Korea Daesong Bank, and Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation, the object of this recent Justice Department indictment — long after those banks were designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department. Worse, the Belgian government authorized that. Generally speaking, both sets of designations require the freezing of any of the target’s assets, and prohibit any action that facilitates the target’s transfer of property or interests in property.
248. In response to inquiries by the Panel, SWIFT confirmed to the Belgian authorities that it provided financial messaging services to designated banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As part of its procedure for doing so, SWIFT requests authorization from the Government to receive the moneys owed for the services. Upon receipt of such authorization, SWIFT receives payment for its services from the designated banks.The payments are then entered in its books and recorded as revenue. The Belgian authorities have authorized SWIFT to receive the amounts set out in tables 13 and 14 from designated banks in exchange for the provision of financial messaging services, the provision of the SWIFT handbook, training in the use of the SWIFT network and maintenance costs.
SWIFT stopped providing services to four other North Korean banks — Amroggang Development Banking Corporation, Daedong Credit Bank, Tanchon Commercial Bank, and Korea United Development Bank — not because SWIFT was even minimally principled, but because “those banks themselves requested SWIFT to do so.”
Paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 requires all Member States, and all persons subject to their jurisdiction, to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of” designated entities. The whole point of financial messaging services is to make economic resources available. I can’t for the life of me see how financial messaging on behalf of designated North Korean banks is anything but a clear violation of 1718.
The unavoidable fact of SWIFT messaging is that it enables banks to effect financial transfers. Thus, messaging services that facilitate designated banks’ financial transactions violate a Member State’s duty (in this case, Belgium’s) to “prevent” the funds “from being made available” to designated entities, per paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 (2013), and paragraph 10 of UNSCR 2270 (2016). To authorize the acceptance of payment from designated DPRK entities would permit those entities to purchase goods and services and access the global economy, which would contravene the plain meaning of an asset freeze. That’s exactly what Belgium and SWIFT did here. Bear in mind that last summer, the Justice Department indicted Dandong Hongxiang for using an off-the-books ledger system to move funds for one of the very same banks.
Then, there is the question of whether SWIFT provided “financial services” to North Korean banks. In relevant part, Paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 requires Member States to “prevent the provision of financial services . . . by their nationals or entities organized under their laws . . . of any financial or other assets or resources . . . that could contribute to” activities prohibited by the Security Council’s resolutions. By citing Paragraph 8 (d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), this provision specifically applies to entities that have been designated by the Security Council.
Now, I take it that SWIFT’s highly-paid lawyers and lobbyists (at least, more highly paid than me) have gone to great lengths to persuade people that financial messaging services aren’t “financial services.” In paragraph 249 of the Panel’s report, Belgium cites domestic and EU law to that effect. At best, that’s a valiant effort to make chicken salad from chicken shit. To its credit, the Panel didn’t buy that, although it focused on a different angle — the receipt of fees by SWIFT from North Korean banks.
The Panel notes that, in the absence of a determination by the Committee that these payments fall under the exemptions in paragraphs 9 (a) and/or (b) of resolution 1718 (2006), the receipt of funds from a designated entity is a violation of the asset freeze pursuant to paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraphs 8 and 11 of resolution 2094 (2013).
Myself, I’m much less concerned about the minuscule fees SWIFT received — a few thousand dollars — than the (undoubtedly, much larger) sums SWIFT’s messaging services helped those designated banks to move.
With U.N. resolutions, we’re lucky if many states’ officials read them at all. For the resolutions to have any chance to work as intended, thousands of officials in hundreds of member states have to interpret and apply them consistently. Not all of those officials are banking lawyers. Pedantic interpretations of resolutions that fly in the face of their plain meaning are a recipe for exceptionalism. That’s what happens when a Member State’s interpretation of its domestic law is allowed to contravene the plain meaning and purpose of the resolutions.
Belgium, of all places, now finds itself cast as a unilateralist rogue state defying U.N. resolutions and flirting with money laundering. Given SWIFT’s influence on both sides of the Atlantic, it probably saw itself as above the law. There is nothing on SWIFT’s website reacting to that revelation at the time of posting. But with the truth of SWIFT’s enabling of dirty North Korean banks now revealed, it’s hard for me to believe that it will be business as usual. At a bare minimum, I’d expect SWIFT to disconnect the three designated banks. The next move may well be up to Congress. For SWIFT, that’s a lot of risk to take to feed the hand that bites them.
Over the weekend, Malaysian authorities painstakingly decontaminated a terminal of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport where North Korean agents — including a diplomat — carried out a lethal attack with the nerve agent VX, a substance so deadly that a tiny droplet can kill an adult. The authorities are clearly concerned that the use of a persistent chemical weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal will cause panic among Malaysian citizens and members of the traveling public, as well they should be. Pyongyang’s reckless act endangered thousands of innocent lives. It endangered every child who sat on the floor while her mother used the check-in machines. It endangered every baby who touched a contaminated surface and put her finger in her mouth, and every mother who used one of the sinks the attackers used to wash their hands. It endangered every worker who cleaned the restrooms or vacuumed the floors, every traveler who touched the handrails on the escalators going down to the taxi rank, every passenger who rode in one of those taxis after the attackers did, and every person who walked through that terminal and took her shoes off at her front doorstep.
The first object of Malaysians’ outrage is, and should be, the North Korean government. As of this hour, the North Korean embassy is still harboring two suspects, refusing to cooperate with Malaysian authorities, and spewing flagrant lies to deflect blame. Obviously, I can’t speak for the Malaysian government, but if I could, I’d be making plans to close the embassy, to expel everyone with diplomatic immunity, and arrest any suspect without it.
But if Pyongyang deserves the brunt of our outrage, a second object of outrage should be the Malaysian government itself, which had long been warned in U.N. reports that Pyongyang’s agents on its soil were violating U.N. sanctions and the laws of other nations, yet did little to curtail them. Report after report identified Malaysia as the home base of North Korean spies, smugglers, arms dealers, slave traders, money launderers, and procurers of tools to make missiles. In allowing this activity to go on for years, the Malaysian government not only allowed North Korea to endanger Malaysians, but to endanger the citizens of other countries — and indeed, the security of the entire world.
Just last week, for example, Reuters reported on the contents of a leaked excerpt of the 2017 report by the U.N. Panel of Experts overseeing compliance with U.N. sanctions against North Korea, including an embargo on the sale or purchase by North Korea or arms and related materiel. The report described the interdiction last year of a shipment of North Korean weapons in transit to Eritrea, including 45 boxes of battlefield radios manufactured by the Malaysia-based company Glocom. According to the report, Glocom is a front for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Korean Workers’ Party, an entity designated by the U.N. Security Council, and the agency suspected of carrying out the Kuala Lumpur airport attack. Glocom still operates through this website marketing its wares. It does not list Glocom’s corporate officers, so I’ll let the Malaysian authorities investigate whether there are any financial, logistical, material, or personnel links between Glocom and the attackers. Overall, that seems likely to be the case.
Reuters has a must-read story on Glocom filled with details about how it masked its ownership and control behind layers of front companies and shell companies, and tied itself to Malaysian man with influence in the country’s ruling party. They even made this org chart:
It notes that on one occasion in 2014, a female RGB agent named Ryang Su-nyo was caught at the Kuala Lumpur airport terminal while attempting to smuggle $450,000 in cash through customs (note again the North Korean preference for U.S. dollars). Ryang said she was transporting the money for the North Korean embassy, so the authorities decided not to press charges and gave the cash back. Here’s a newer website for Glocom. This wasn’t like any of the ham-handed, rinky-dink North Korean front companies I’ve seen before. This was a slick, sophisticated, and well-capitalized operation that raised funds for an agency with a long history of terrorism. If any of the money ran through the U.S. financial system, which seems likely, it would be worth exploring a material support charge.
Then, there is the case of a 2007 shipment of missile parts seized en route from North Korea to Syria. That shipment, which transited through Dalian, China and Port Kelang, Malaysia contained, among other items, “solid double-base propellant … usable for gas generators to power Scud missile turbopumps.” When the shipment was seized, the blocks of explosive propellant that had passed through those busy ports were removed “for safety reasons.” (2012 report, Para. 57.)
Malaysia has long been a hub and meeting venue for North Korean arms smuggling. A shipment of tank parts bound for the Republic of Congo, and which was seized in South Africa in 2010, was routed through Dalian, China and Port Kelang. (2010 report, Para. 63.) In June 2009, Japanese authorities arrested three individuals for attempting to illegally export a magnetometer to Myanmar through Malaysia, “allegedly under the direction of a company known to be associated with illicit procurement for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear and military programmes.” (2010 report, Para. 51.) In 2012, Japan notified the panel of 2008 and 2009 shipments through Malaysia of machinery useful for producing missile gyroscopes. (2012 report, Para. 91.)
Malaysians have seen the tragic results of anti-aircraft missiles falling into the wrong hands. In 2012, a British court convicted arms smuggler Michael Ranger of attempting to sell Azerbaijan “between 70 and 100 man-portable air defence systems”* from Hesong Trading Company, a subsidiary of the notorious Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, or KOMID, Pyongyang’s principal arms-dealing front company. Ranger “was in regular e-mail correspondence with” O Hak-Chol, a North Korean diplomat and Hesong representative whom Mr. Ranger met in a number of third countries, including Malaysia. (2013 report, Paras. 90-95 & FN.61.) As recently as 2015, KOMID representatives continued to transit through Malaysia. (2016 report, Para. 177.)
As of 2015, long after the Security Council designated North Korean shipper Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) for arms smuggling and required member states to close its offices and expel its representatives, OMM still maintained an office in Kuala Lumpur. (2015 report, Para. 128.) Until early 2015, a Malaysia-based North Korean agent named Pak In-su acted as an agent for the Mirae Shipping Company, a front for OMM.
Pak In-su’s primary employer was Malaysian Coal and Minerals Corporation (2015 report, Para. 143), a company that is almost certainly linked to Malaysia’s use of North Korean labor in its coal mines. What little we know of working conditions for North Korean expatriate laborers in Malaysia, and what we know of the conditions elsewhere, suggests that those conditions are tantamount to slavery. At least one North Korean miner in Malaysia was killed in an explosion in 2014. In the end, the regime in Pyongyang probably keeps most of the workers’ wages.
The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that 300 North Korean laborers are working in Malaysia. Partially as a result of such labor practices, Malaysia was recently downgraded to Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which imposes penalties on legitimate Malaysian businesses that export to the United States. It also subjects Malaysia to sanctions risks, and the entire world to security risks. In a press release announcing its designation of the Mansudae Overseas Project group, for exportation of workers in violation of Executive Order 13722, the Treasury Department listed Malaysia as a market for Mansudae’s services, and said, “Some of the revenue generated by overseas laborers is used by the Munitions Industry Department, which was designated by the Department of State in August 2010 pursuant to E.O. 13382 for its support to North Korea’s WMD program.”
The procurement network that obtained parts and materials for North Korea’s missile programs has long had a strong presence in Malaysia. This presence has included entities that were designated by the U.N., including OMM, Mirae Shipping, and KOMID, and a U.N.-designated North Korean arms exporter known as Green Pine. In 2006 and 2010, the Korea Chonbok Trading Corporation, a front for Green Pine, purchased pressure transmitters from an unnamed European country for its long-range Unha-3 rockets. A payment invoice for the transactions lists one Ryong Jong-chol, a North Korean based in Malaysia, as the purchaser. (2015 report, Para. 195.) The payments, denominated in Euro, were routed through a Malaysian bank. According to the Panel, “Ryom was acting as the representative of Bank of East Land.” East Land was later designated by the U.S. Treasury Department (in 2011), the U.N. (in 2013), and the European Union (in 2013). (2016 report, Para. 186.) As of February 2016, the Malaysian government had still not responded to the Panel’s request for information about the transactions.
Malaysia’s tolerance of North Korea’s deceptive financial practices endangers Malaysian banks’ access to the global financial system. Malaysia is one of the few nations that still deals with North Korean banks, despite U.N. resolutions requiring “enhanced monitoring” of its financial activities (Para. 11), and warnings by the Financial Action Task Force to take “countermeasures” against North Korean money laundering and proliferation financing. In 2009, U.S. sanctions coordinator Philip Goldberg and Treasury official Daniel Glaser traveled to Malaysia and met with senior officials of the Malaysian government and central bank, regarding the implementation of U.N. financial sanctions under then-new UNSCR 1874. That visit followed reports that Malaysian banks were involved in transferring funds between North Korea and Burma for weapons-related transactions, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. In 2013, Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen visited Malaysia to discuss its compliance with U.N. financial sanctions.
At least one major Malaysian Bank, Malayan Banking Berhad, was reported by the Panel in 2010 to maintain a correspondent relationship with, or to issue letters of credit for, North Korean banks. (2010 report, page 68.)It’s important to note, however, that the U.N. Security Council did not prohibit correspondent relationships with North Korean banks until 90 days after the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, on March 3, 2016. The Panel’s 2013 report listed the International Consortium Bank, a/k/a Hi-Fund International Bank as having been partially capitalized by and founded by the Malaysia Korea Partners Group of Companies (2013 report, page 132.)
ICB is a subsidiary of a North Korean front company called the MKP Group, which has the world’s most hilariously awful website, appears to have some ties to the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, also operates in Zambia, and really merits a post of its own one day. The existence of these banking relationships shows the importance of Malaysia as a secondary hub in Pyongyang’s financial network, which is often used for illicit purposes.
A recent investigation by Bangladeshi authorities into the smuggling of undeclared luxury goods, including LED televisions, tobacco, Rolls-Royces, and BMWs, has reportedly implicated the North Korean embassy in Malaysia. Under UNSCR 1718, North Korea is prohibited from importing luxury goods. In this case, the end destination for the goods isn’t clear, but whoever is behind the shipments conspired to evade Bangladesh import duties.
For the most part, the substantial network of North Korean arms smugglers, spies, and money launderers who operate in Malaysia merely endanger the citizens of other nations — most obviously in South Korea, but also in Syria and the Republic of Congo. In most cases, however, it’s impossible to predict who and where the next victims of North Korea’s activities will be. North Korea sells the world’s most dangerous weapons and technology to any buyer without regard to end users, victims, or consequences. As the VX attack at Kuala Lumpur illustrates, allowing North Korean agents to operate on one’s soil eventually endangers the host country’s citizens and interests, too. The question that the Malaysian people and government should be asking is whether the benefits of their financial and commercial ties to North Korea are really worth those risks.
~ ~ ~
* North Korea has been caught selling MANPADS before. One shipment of them was seized in Bangkok in 2010, on its way to Iran’s terrorist clients. In 2010, Yi Qing Chen was convicted of attempting to smuggle Chinese-made QM-2 man-portable surface-to-air missiles into the United States in 2005. In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The QM-2 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Igla-1, or SAM-18.
Years from today, North Korean bankers will remember 2016 as their annus horribilis. In February, a month after the North’s fourth nuclear test, Congress passed, and the President signed, the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Section 201 of the new law all but compelled the Treasury Department to designate North Korea a Primary Money Laundering Concern under section 311 of the Patriot Act. Section 311 allows for a menu of special measures to protect the financial system against offenders, but in March, the U.N. Security Council approved Resolution 2270, requiring member states to cut their correspondent relations with North Korean banks. That set the stage for Treasury to invoke the fifth and toughest of those measures, denying North Korean banks direct and indirect correspondent account services and isolating them from the international financial system. By then, the Financial Action Task Force had also called on banks and finance ministries around the world to apply “countermeasures” against North Korean money laundering.
As of January 2016, just eight North Korean banks’ assets had been blocked by the Treasury Department, including the Foreign Trade Bank and Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, or KKBC. Over the course of 2016, eight more North Korean banks would be blocked, six of them last Friday alone: North East Asia Bank, Koryo Credit Development Bank, Rason International Commercial Bank, Kumgang Bank, and Koryo Bank. That’s as close as financial regulation gets to this:
For banks that were already designated and had been slipping their payments through the net, events have also taken a darker turn. For years, Korea Kwangsong Bank accessed the financial system illegally through a Chinese conglomerate, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development. They would have gotten away with it, too, if not for those meddling (and also, brilliant) kids at the Center for Advanced Defense Studies, who used a shoestring budget and open-source intelligence to expose their international money-laundering operation. Shortly after C4ADS released its report, Treasury froze DHID’s assets, and the Justice Department indicted DHID and filed a complaint to forfeit its accounts in a dozen Chinese banks.
If the Chinese banking industry is North Korea’s financial Abbottabad, the SEALs have begun to break down the doors of its safe haven. Treasury has not yet cavity searched the (metaphorical) harem by fining the Chinese bankers who’ve flunked their know-your-customer obligations, but by now, those bankers have surely seen the video of Senators Menendez, Rubio, and Gardner calling for their heads.
Is that all? No, that is still not all. Last week, it was a matter of intense speculation when NK News noticed that the CEO of Egyptian conglomerate Orascom Telecom, Naguib Sawaris, had landed in Pyongyang on his private jet. Sawaris had made himself scarce in Pyongyang since last year, when North Korea effectively confiscated Orascom’s profits from a cell phone network joint venture called Koryolink and caused Orascom share prices to plunge like Thanksgiving turkeys from a helicopter. It wasn’t long before we learned the reason for Sawaris’s visit — later that week, Orascom announced that Orabank, its joint banking venture with the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank, would shut down. Scratch seven banks in two weeks (but it’s still only Wednesday).
Orascom shares fell more than five percent the day it announced the failure of Orabank. It blamed sanctions, but its North Korea joint ventures were already write-offs due to Pyongyang’s own confiscatory restrictions before sanctions were strengthened in 2016. The exact cause of Orabank’s death wasn’t the 2013 designation of the DPRK Foreign Trade Bank for proliferation financing. The impending termination of Orabank’s correspondent relationships probably played a role, but I suspect that the investigative reporter George Turner inflicted the fatal wound when he exposed the links between Orabank and the FTB (more meddling kids). Even without the 311 action, knowledge of Orabank’s links to the FTB put Orascom’s corporate officers at risk of prosecution.
This week, Sawaris announced his resignation as CEO. No kidding. If I were an Orascom shareholder, I’d have wanted him defenestrated. Sawaris is one of those larger-than-life corporate caudillos who tend to be susceptible to hubris and delusions of omnipotence. He should have known better. North Korea has a long and near-perfect record of bankrupting its investors and ruining their reputations. As they say, fools and their money are soon parted. The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Adam Johnson, probably put it best when he said, “[E]veryone who deals with them eventually gets burned.”
North Korea may soon enter uncharted territory. Within a few months, it may be the only industrialized state in modern history to have no banking industry to speak of. That will have the immediate benefit of forcing it to rely on third-country banks, which will have more dollar exposure and more incentive to avoid handling transactions for illicit cargo and designated entities. As of today, however, a few North Korean banks still live on. In 2014, the U.N. Panel of Experts published a table with a partial list of them. I copied that table and shaded the columns gray for banks that are designated by Treasury, and a trendy shade of tan for banks that appear to be defunct.
For comparison, here is a list of North Korean banks that have been designated by the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (it looks longer than it really is because many of these names are aliases and alternative spellings).
Not all of the banks designated by Treasury are on the U.N. list. If some of them are really the same banks using different names, there should be more gray on the first chart. Still, some of the 13 undesignated survivors are significant, including the DPRK Central Bank and the Korea Commerce Bank. Hana Banking Corporation may become especially important to Kim Jong-un’s sanctions survival strategy, as it deals in Renminbi. I’d expect to see a ruble bank arise in the near future, too, but as the Justice Department recently revealed, the North Koreans have already tried that strategy and found its limits. Other banks on the list appear to be small, fly-by-night operations. They may have less global exposure and be more likely to survive a loss of their interbank access; after all, even Banco Delta Asia still survives (in much-diminished form) by dealing in Renminbi and Macanese patacas. Will a few small, non-dollar banks and couriers carrying briefcases full of cash be sufficient to sustain the government of a nation of 23 million people? Not for long, but that will depend on how aggressive we are, and how much time they have.
You will soon read much haughty analysis from aspiring Nobel Peace Prize laureates that sanctions against North Korea will not be airtight. That is true. No sanctions regime has ever been airtight, and no sanctions regime ever needed to be. The effectiveness of sanctions isn’t measured in absolute terms; it’s measured in relative terms. Sanctions work when they force despots to make difficult choices, catalyze corruption and indiscipline, instigate inter-factional knife fights over dwindling resources, and convince the tyrants that they’re losing control. How many brigades can they afford to feed? Will they have to cut back on pay and rations, and will that mean more border guards frag their officers, or carry their guns over the border and rob Chinese villagers? How many diplomats and slush fund managers will defect when they realize they can’t make their kick-up payments, and how many more bank accounts will they finger when they do? Can Bureau 39 buy enough big-screen TVs for the boys in both the SSD and the MPS, and how will the ones who get stuck with crappy Samjiyon tablets feel about that? Will keeping all the goon squads happy only come at the cost of fixing flood-damaged bridges and railways? Will the consequence of not fixing them be that the affected regions drift out of Pyongyang’s orbit? How long will Xi Jinping have their back if secondary sanctions start to cause pain in China’s precarious banking sector, or in its rust belt? Will Xi’s paternal benevolence end if Kim starts a regional arms race, or causes a breakdown in relations with the United States?
Those are the difficult choices that sanctions can drive, and in the not-too-distant future, those choices will become matters of regime survival. I hasten to add that sanctions aren’t the only strategy that can threaten the regime’s stability. We don’t just have to pick one; in fact, they can complement each other well. Pyongyang’s goal will be to relieve itself of those difficult choices without making the two most difficult decisions of all: first, the decision to disarm completely, verifiably, and irreversibly; and second, the decision to accept enough transparency that anyone possessed of common sense would believe that it really made the first decision. Our discipline must be to multiply and intensify those difficulties until Kim Jong-un — or more likely, someone more reasonable who deposes him — makes those two most difficult decisions.
In yesterday’s post, I linked to reports suggesting that China’s failure to agree on the terms of a new U.N. sanctions resolution responding to North Korea’s latest nuclear test may be motivated by a desire to wait out the end of President Obama’s administration. This theory would only make sense if China figures it can get better terms from President Trump next year, but my post pointed to evidence of the opposite of this — that what we know so far about the key people advising Trump is that some want to increase sanctions against His Supreme Corpulency and his Chinese backers, and others would prefer to terminate his command with extreme prejudice.
First, I’ll offer an important caveat: it can be treacherous trying to divine President Elect Trump’s policy views by listening to his advisors.
With that caveat, then, if the present pattern of selections and nominations continues, differences between the U.S. and China over North Korea may have to get worse under a Trump administration before they can get better. Men like John Bolton, Mitt Romney, James Mattis, and Michael Flynn probably believe that President Obama’s deferential approach to China, rather than improving relations, likely contributed to China’s (correct) calculation that it could get away with grabbing vast areas of the South China Sea, bullying its neighbors, undermining North Korea sanctions, and doing other things to escalate regional tensions. They may see more pressure on China as a prerequisite to defanging North Korea. They may dismiss China’s explanations of its North Korea policy as mendacious and double-dealing, which is only natural, given that China actually has at least six of them — all of them risible, mutually inconsistent, or both.
First, there is China’s official diplomatic position, expressed in its vote for no less than six resolutions at the Security Council. Implicit in these votes are two ideas — that China wants a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and that economic pressure is an important part of a policy for achieving that end.
Third, there is the propaganda line advanced by China’s scholars and acolytes that sanctions — that is, the ones China has spent the last decade violating — never work. (Except, of course, whentheydo, but more on that in a moment.)
Fourth, when called on its years of flagrant violations, China says it’s afraid that sanctions will work so well they’ll destabilize the regime in Pyongyang. Here’s a typical example of something you’ve read at least a hundred times:
China fears that stricter measures against North Korea, such as cutting off provisions of oil and food, would lead to a humanitarian disaster with millions of refugees flocking across the border. The collapse of Kim’s government could also put soldiers from South Korea and its U.S. ally right on China’s border, a scenario Beijing’s leaders want to avoid. [Bloomberg]
A premise of that view is that China would rather have a nuclear-armed, genocidal North Korea along its border than a democratic one friendly to the United States, which it views with intense hostility. Usually, that premise goes unspoken, but not always.
“The United States cannot rely on China for North Korea,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “China is closer to North Korea than the United States.”
China sees living with a Communist-ruled nuclear-armed state on its border as preferable to the chaos of its collapse, Mr. Shi said. The Chinese leadership is confident that North Korea will not turn its weapons on China, and that China can control its neighbor by providing enough oil to keep its economy afloat.
The alternative is a strategic nightmare for Beijing: a collapsed North Korean regime, millions of refugees piling into China and a unified Korean Peninsula under an American defense treaty. [N.Y. Times]
China provides North Korea with most of its food and energy supplies and accounts for more than 70 percent of North Korea’s total trade volume (PDF). “China is currently North Korea’s only economic backer of any importance,” writes Nicholas Eberstadt, senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. [Council on Foreign Relations]
Finally, China has a last line of defense: We are, too, enforcing sanctions!If it comes under sufficient diplomatic pressure, for a few weeks or months, Beijing will encourage a few banks and companies to freeze a few accounts, arrest a few North Korean money launderers, or inspect some cargo entering or leaving North Korea. This compliance typically lasts for a few weeks or months until the trade returns to business as usual.
In2013, and again this year, Chinese banks seemed (for a few weeks) to have frozen North Korean accounts right after asanctions resolution passed. But by September, the Justice Department’s indictment and forfeiture action against Dandong Hongxiang proved that Chinese banks had gone right back to servicing His Porcine Majesty’s slush funds. At first blush, a new Washington Post report by Anna Fifield, indicating that Sino-North Korean trade dropped off suddenly in recent weeks, looks like the latest Chinese head-fake in response to pressure from the outgoing Obama administration.
[T]rading has become significantly harder in recent weeks, a dozen people involved in doing business with North Korea said in interviews, the result of a double-pronged attempt by Beijing to communicate its anger with the regime in Pyongyang.
“Everything’s become tougher since September,” a Korean Chinese factory owner who employs North Korean workers here told The Washington Post. “This crackdown is because of the missile and nuclear tests, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to blow over.” [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
This could be a head-fake, but it could also mean something entirely different and much more significant — Chinese companies may be showing their fear of U.S. secondary sanctions. Specifically, Fifield sees some evidence that the Dandong Hongxiang action had an in-terrorem effect on other Chinese trading companies. Indeed, she speculates that this action had a greater impact than the passage of U.N. sanctions:
But an equal or even bigger influence is the surprise detention of a prominent Dandong business executive, a member of the Communist Party no less, who stands accused of helping North Korea dodge sanctions and obtain materials for its weapons program.
“When business people hear this kind of story, of course we feel very constrained and it makes us very cautious,” a South Korean businessman trading in this area said on condition of anonymity. The atmosphere is so tense that none of the businessmen interviewed were willing to be publicly identified, even as they insisted everything was aboveboard.
Business is down, but no one knows how long that will last. And even now there are plenty of ambiguous signs: The annual trade fair here was canceled- yet coal exports from North Korea are breaking records. China holds the lever, and its intentions can only be speculated upon. [Washington Post, Anna Fifield]
This highlights a point that sanctions skeptics tend to miss or gloss over — that the goal of secondary sanctions isn’t so much to change the attitude of the Chinese government (probably a fool’s errand) but to threaten the divergent interests of the Chinese banks and business that are the instruments of Beijing’s sanctions-busting. Chinese banks and businesses are content to break sanctions if it’s profitable to do so, but not at the cost of their assets or their access to international markets, trade, or finance.
Fifield treats these reports with justifiable skepticism, noting that the Chinese government’s interest in maintaining North Korea’s status quo (however horrific for North Koreans) probably hasn’t changed. Indeed, I see little clear evidence in Fifield’s report that this drop-off is the result of Chinese government action. What’s interesting and noteworthy is the timing of this change (in September). On September 9th, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, which brought more diplomatic pressure on the Chinese government to enforce sanctions. The Dandong Hongxiang actions were announced on September 26th. One could argue that either event was a greater influence than the other.
Fifield and Andrei Lankov, whom Fifield quotes, then proceed to say that years of sanctions have failed, even as Fifield sees evidence that the Dandong Hongxiang action might have worked. But this is a false distinction. It misses the key point that U.S. authorities acted against Dandong Hongxiang for laundering money for Korea Kwangsong Bank, which was designated by both the U.N. and the U.S. for proliferation financing in violation of U.N. sanctions. This was an example of a Member State using its national laws to enforce U.N. sanctions, which is the only way U.N. sanctions can be enforced. Dandong Hongxiang is precisely what it looks like when someone bothers to enforce U.N. sanctions for once.
It’s difficult to believe that a single enforcement action — particularly one that failed to act against the Chinese banks behind Dandong Hongxiang’s violations — will be enough to put significant and lasting pressure on Pyongyang. Chinese businesses may be waiting to see how the new Trump administration responds. Or, we may be seeing the Chinese government’s latest head-fake. But for now, the report bears watching, and may eventually validate the effectiveness of secondary sanctions.
After a long delay, the Treasury Department has issued its final rule prohibiting financial institutions operating in U.S. jurisdiction from providing direct or indirect correspondent account services to North Korean financial institutions. In English, that means North Korean banks are now denied a critical link for accessing the global financial system.
North Korea is now one of only three countries to be declared a Primary Money Laundering Concern by the Treasury Department, and is the only country subject to Special Measure 5. Under section 311 of the Patriot Act, the imposition of Special Measure 5 requires formal rulemaking — notice, comment, and publication of a final rule in the Federal Register — which explains some of the delay since late May, but not all of it.
The skeptics will have several responses to this. The first, that North Korea is already heavily sanctioned, I’ve alreadydebunked, and most experts who actually understand sanctions will agree with me here. The second, that North Korea stopped using the dollar system years ago, has been refuted by the Justice Department’s recent indictment and U.N. reports. Indeed, Bill Brown’s analysis tells us that North Korea has dollarized its economy to stabilize it. The most recent counter-arguments are that North Korea doesn’t directly access the financial system through its banks, and that it effectively hides its money using front companies.
The latter arguments are best addressed by pointing to the example of C4ADS’s exposure of hundreds of North Korean ships, agents, and front companies using open-source research. That, in turn, led to the indictment of, and forfeiture action against, Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, which used its own bank accounts to provide indirect correspondent account services to a sanctioned North Korean bank, Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation. The new 311 rule expands the prohibition on providing such services to cover all North Korean banks, not just those designated by the Treasury Department.
The DHID case is illustrative of one of the main strategies North Korea has used to adapt to the BDA action. It uses front companies like DHID, Chinpo Shipping, and 88 Queensway, and others that operate as unlicensed money transmitting businesses, which is itself a criminal offense. Those businesses then use their own accounts in Chinese banks to provide North Korea with indirect correspondent account services. In other words, the DHID indictments reaffirmed that North Korea continues to rely on the dollar system, and we have legal tools that are perfectly suited to shutting down that use — or would be, if the Obama administration had the political will to use them.
As described above and in the NOF, FinCEN shares the concerns raised by the comment regarding North Korea’s extensive use of deceptive financial practices, including the use of shell and front companies to obfuscate the true originator, beneficiary, and purpose behind its transactions. However, FinCEN’s authority, as granted by Congress in 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(2), applies only to information concerning the beneficial ownership of “account[s] opened or maintained in the United States” and thus would not extend to information relating to the beneficial ownership of property writ large, or to property outside the United States as the comment suggested. [Final Rule]
This is a blue answer to a green question. What we were suggesting, of course, was exactly what paragraph (b)(2) of Section 311 authorizes — that Treasury may “require any domestic financial institution or domestic financial agency to take such steps as the Secretary may determine to be reasonable and practicable to obtain and retain information concerning the beneficial ownership of any account opened or maintained in the United States by a foreign person.” To the extent that North Korea’s front companies transact in dollars and use banks that operate in U.S. jurisdiction, FINCEN has the jurisdiction to impose this measure. Either Treasury is conceding that it has no jurisdiction to enforce this entire provision, or it simply isn’t willing to use it. And when North Korea’s sanctions evasion strategy is all about hiding its money behind shell companies and front companies, exposing these interests will be key to making sanctions work.
The new 311 action thus has one potential advantage and one potential disadvantage over Treasury’s 2005 action against Banco Delta Asia, the effectiveness of which is beyond serious dispute. Unlike the BDA action, Treasury’s new 311 action covers all North Korean banks, not just one small Chinese bank that enabled them. But the advantage that BDA had over Treasury’s final rule is that it signaled a willingness to reach third-party enablers, including Chinese banks, that the Obama administration hasn’t shown. The BDA action was followed by a campaign of global financial diplomacy that sent a clear message to North Korea’s bankers everywhere. Today, in contrast, the designation of North Korea would never have happened had Congress not forced the administration to act through legislation, and Congress seems unanimous in its frustration that the administration isn’t willing to enforce the law.
In theory, the new 311 action could be the single most powerful sanction yet imposed on North Korea. In practice, however, it will amount to nothing if the administration continues to refrain from enforcing the new sanction, by simply looking the other way at Chinese banks’ laissez-faire compliance with Know-Your-Customer rules, and even flagrant cases of money laundering.
All of which promises to set up major tensions between the U.S. and China during the next administration, but I’ll let you read Josh Rogin’s take on that, along with this, this, this, this, and this, all suggesting that if Clinton wins, she’ll intensify sanctions against His Porcine Majesty and his Chinese bankers. Speculate on your own as to whether this is just talk. Also, speculate on your own as to which of Trump’s advisorsreally speaks for a potential President Trump.
It has now been an inexplicably long four months since the Treasury Department announced its Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to designate North Korea as a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern, in which it stated its intent to cut off North Korean banks’ access to correspondent accounts in the dollar financial system. Under section 311 of the Patriot Act, however, such a cutoff only becomes legally enforceable after Treasury publishes its final rule, which Treasury still has not done, and should have done months ago. To understand why Treasury’s action is potentially such a big deal, read this or this, or (if you haven’t already) read about how itaffected a bank in Macau that Treasury accused of laundering money for North Korea in 2005.
Needless to say, Treasury would not have taken that action had Congress not forced its hand in section 201 of the NKSPEA. Shortly after the passage of the NKSPEA, the U.N. Security Council enacted a similar provision in UNSCR 2270, giving that cutoff the backing of a global legal mandate.
Although the U.S. Treasury Department is the capo di tutti capi of the world’s financial regulators, it is also the case that Treasury can’t effectively isolate a target without global cooperation (case in point: Cuba). Hence, the supreme importance of Global Financial Action Task Force, one of the few international organizations that actually works. FATF is a consortium of industry and government regulators, and critically, it isn’t under U.N. control or subject to a Chinese veto. Originally established to harmonize international money laundering regulation and prevent illicit finance from taking advantage of weak governance in certain jurisdictions, FATF has played a growing role in suppressing terrorist and proliferation finance since September 11, 2001. Most governments take its warnings seriously, and those warnings were an important part of why Iran sanctions worked.
For years, FATF has also issued warnings that jurisdictions should take “countermeasures” against illicit North Korean finance. In that regard, much of the language in FATF’s warning is nothing new.
Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)
The FATF remains concerned by the DPRK’s failure to address the significant deficiencies in its anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) regime and the serious threat this poses to the integrity of the international financial system. The FATF urges the DPRK to immediately and meaningfully address its AML/CFT deficiencies. Further, FATF has serious concerns with the threat posed by DPRK’s illicit activities related to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and its financing.
The FATF reaffirms its 25 February 2011 call on its members and urges all jurisdictions to advise their financial institutions to give special attention to business relationships and transactions with the DPRK, including DPRK companies, financial institutions and those acting on their behalf. [FATF, Oct. 16, 2016]
Still, North Korea was concerned enough about those warnings to make nice with the FATF, and by applying to join one of its associated groups, the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering. FATF’s warnings, however, amounted to little more than recommendations for enhanced due diligence about suspicious transactions, and in the Mos Eisleys of the financial universe, “suspicious” is very much in the eye of the beholder. Although news reports sometimes treated these same-old-same-old warnings like page one news, the warnings have been mostly consistent since 2011. Until now, that is.
Belatedly, FATF has finally begun to implement UNSCR 2270’s more stringent financial sanctions on North Korea, and this time, FATF is telling its members some very clear, specific, and potentially devastating things:
In addition to enhanced scrutiny, the FATF further calls on its members and urges all jurisdictions to apply effective counter-measures, and targeted financial sanctions in accordance with applicable United Nations Security Council Resolutions, to protect their financial sectors from money laundering, financing of terrorism and WMD proliferation financing (ML/FT/PF) risks emanating from the DPRK. Jurisdictions should take necessary measures to close existing branches, subsidiaries and representative offices of DPRK banks within their territories and terminate correspondent relationships with DPRK banks, where required by relevant UNSC Resolutions. [FATF, Oct. 16, 2016, emphasis mine]
More here, at NK News, and here, from the Chosun Ilbo.
This warning is a critical piece in the enforcement of a global crackdown on North Korean banks, which have a very long history of illicit and proliferation financing. By binding the issuers of other convertible currencies, it effectively closes the biggest holes in the global net closing in on North Korea’s banks, and gives Treasury and third-country regulators an internationally accepted basis to isolate other banks that fail to cut off North Korea’s correspondent accounts or close its bank branches. If Treasury gets off the dime and issues its own final rule — and there are reasons to question the administration’s political will to enforce it — we’ll have an opportunity to see, in a few months’ time, how much effect this has. I’ll also be interested in knowing whether Treasury will adopt the comment by Bill Newcomb and me on beneficial ownership.
Meanwhile, FATF’s action is a late step forward, but a very big one. If the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are serious about building a global coalition to put “crushing” pressureonNorth Korea, this action is a sine qua non toward achieving that.
“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.” – Winston Churchill
It has now been six weeks since North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, and the U.S. and China remain deadlocked in their talks about a new resolution to close the loopholes in existing U.N. sanctions. Pyongyang is racing to make its nuclear armament a fait accompli before the next U.S. administration warms the chairs in the White House and Foggy Bottom. Kim Jong-un also has reason to hope that after 2017, it might be dealing with the sort of alt-left South Korean leader who would ask his permission before enforcing U.N. sanctions, and who would pressure a Clinton administration to start “peace” talks, Pyongyang’s preconditions for which would amount to de facto recognition of North Korea as a nuclear state. That would put His Corpulency within sight of achieving hegemony over the entire Korean peninsula. At the current rate, he is winning that race.
Would President Park choose to let that happen and go quietly into the night, or would she prefer to take her chances with preemptive strikes, with or without U.S. support? President Park’s Plan B may well look very much like Israel’s Operation Opera in 1982. The risks of miscalculation and escalation should require no elaboration. So when sanctions skeptics warn us of the risk that effective sanctions enforcement triggers a financial crisis in Pyongyang, just consider the alternatives.
Over the last few days, I’ve read a smattering of self-congratulatoryreports that China is finally enforcing sanctions against North Korea by cutting back on coal imports. This is flawed and dangerously wishful thinking. First, China has historically reacted to U.S. diplomatic pressure by dialing down commerce with Pyongyang for a few weeks or months until the heat is off. Then, it goes right back to propping up Pyongyang and breaking sanctions like it always has. Second, the skyrocketing price of coal could yield a massive financial windfall for Pyongyang:
At these prices, His Porcine Majesty can sustain his regime and keep nuking up by exporting a fraction of the volume of coal he exported last year.
China is helping North Korea break sanctions in other ways, too. It’s exporting kerosene to North Korea, in direct violation of UNSCR 2270. Work at the Musan mine near the Chinese border doesn’t appear to have slowed at all. North Korea’s main port at Nampo is crowded with ships loaded with coal, seafood, and other wares for the Chinese market. Some of the North Korean vessels approach the Chinese coast, hover offshore, meet up with smaller vessels coming from Chinese ports, and return to North Korea. Such “hovering vessels” have historically been used for smuggling, by evading customs inspections. This report is consistent with what trusted friends have observed in shipping trackers for months. If I had to venture a guess, I’d say this is probably indicative of the smuggling of bulk cash or gold, either of which would also violate UNSCR 2270.
The administration knows what it needs to do. Regardless of the price of coal, and regardless of the volume of coal — or anything else — that North Korea exports, all of that revenue goes into bank accounts in China. In recent months, I’ve become convinced we know where most of those bank accounts are. What is the answer to China’s years of duplicity, bad faith, double-dealing, and stalling? The answer is to walk away from the negotiations with China, build a diplomatic coalition to enforce sanctions with the authorities we already have, and freeze Kim Jong-un’s offshore accounts.
President Obama’s North Korea legacy will be to leave his successor and our allies with an escalating nuclear crisis, a deteriorating humanitarian situation, and possibly a nuclear arms race in Asia. History will eventually rank it alongside the failure of the Green Revolution in Iran, the near-collapse in Iraq, and the Syria fiasco as one of his greatest foreign policy failures. The question now is whether he will leave his successor with the makings of a strategy to stop Kim Jong-un while there’s still time … if there’s still time.
Two weeks ago, the Treasury Department froze, and the Justice Department moved to forfeit, the assets of Chinese conglomerate Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development and its corporate officers. DHID and its officers were also indicted for conspiracy and money laundering on behalf of Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation, a sanctioned North Korean bank. These were the first secondary sanctions imposed on a Chinese entity since the Treasury Department sanctioned Banco Delta Asia in 2005. The indictment of DHID was a “secondary” sanction because DHID wasn’t sanctioned for directly engaging in proliferation or arms smuggling. The sole basis for the freeze, forfeiture, and indictment was that DHID helped a blocked party, KKBC, access the financial system and launder funds through the United States. The point of secondary sanctions is to completely ostracize and isolate bad actors. Anything less turns sanctions enforcement into a game of what Marcus Noland calls “whack-a-mole.”
As we saw with Banco Delta Asiain 2005 and Iran in 2013, secondary sanctions can devastate a target. Contrary to conventional wisdom, North Korea has vulnerabilities that Iran does not. One of these is North Korea’s small, dysfunctional economy, which depends on a relatively smaller number of exports, exporters, and bankers. Another vulnerability we often overlook is North Korea’s own zero-defect political system, which imposes strict quotas for its operatives to kick up to their underbosses and ultimately, to His Porcine Majesty.
Evidently, Pyongyang doesn’t accept asset freezes and indictments as excuses from trading company officials who fail to meet their quotas. The Daily NK reports that the DHID indictments also disrupted the operations of plenty of North Korean trading companies in China, and those companies’ officials are now terrified of being punished if they can’t meet their quotas.
A number of North Korean trading companies operating in China have been identified as collaborators with the Hongxiang Group of companies – which is presently under investigation for allegations of smuggling sanctioned materials to support the North’s nuclear weapons program. Daily NK’s sources have reported that these same North Korean companies are now under increasing pressure from Pyongyang to provide further supplies to the regime before the Party’s Foundation Day holiday on October 10. These goods are to be presented as gifts to elite cadres in order to shore up Kim Jong Un’s power base.
“The companies that have been suspected of colluding with Hongxiang to smuggle banned nuclear materials are facing pressure on dual fronts now. Their business activities have been almost cut in half due to the ongoing investigations by the Chinese authorities. And now they’re required to contribute goods to Pyongyang before Party Foundation Day,” a source close to North Korean affairs in China reported. [Daily NK]
Think of the death spiral this dynamic could catalyze. A North Korean trading company official doesn’t meet his quota and doesn’t dare to go home again, for fear of plunging through a trap door into a pool of piranhas, volcano lava, or sharks with laser beams attached to their heads. You can see why these people — who may already have been shaken since the purge of Jang Song-thaek — may be tempted to rethink their loyalties, and why that fear could create the makings of more intelligence windfalls, resulting in yet more asset freezes and indictments, and so on.
When asked how the trading companies are coping with the combined pressure, the source replied, “The heads of these trading companies are being investigated by the Chinese authorities on a daily basis. So these companies have resorted to hiring Chinese companies to procure gift items like alcohol, fruit, and food products for them. After the North Korean managers are released from the interviews, they load up the purchased items on trucks and send them over the border into North Korea.”
Those who are unable to keep up with the pressure face dire consequences. The Party Foundation Day holiday is understood to be a loyalty competition among the foreign currency-earning operations. All enterprises are required to provide ‘basic planning funds,’ loyalty funds, and gifts. Falling short of these obligations is dangerous because those deemed responsible are regarded as politically problematic. In North Korea, earning such a label can result in extreme punishments, including execution.
Such conditions have only intensified during the Kim Jong Un era, where even slight infractions have led to purging and punishment. The increasingly severe consequences are well recognized by all overseas foreign currency earning operations, explaining why they prioritize the submission of loyalty funds over the safety of themselves and their employees. [Daily NK]
Lather, rinse, repeat.
Having said this, the DHID action was just an appetizer. Dandong Hongxiang claimed to control the lion’s share of trade with North Korea, but that was probably an exaggeration. Like Jende Huang, I suspect that there are still bigger fish in this pond. Now, Obama administration officials are openly threatening to sanction more Chinese entities, and Congress is pushing it hard to do what would be particularly devastating — to sanction the Chinese banks that launder North Korea’s money.
Although none of the parties to the charged transactions between DHID and KKBC were physically in the U.S. or trading goods with Americans, the North Korean and Chinese parties to the transaction had to go through banks in New Jersey indirectly to do dollar wire transactions, to buy the things His Corpulency wants. If you don’t understand why that is, read this article, or this post about how the system worked in this case, or the Justice Department’s forfeiture complaint.
Which brings me to two predictions. First, because Kim Jong-un’s advisors are probably too scared to tell him how these sanctions work, and because elections are coming in the U.S. and South Korea, a sixth nuclear test is a near certainty within the next year. If that happens, it will trigger a second near certainty, no matterwho wins the presidential election in the United States — a wave of secondary sanctions against North Korea’s Chinese bankers.
It took a few weeks for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Asia Subcommittee to put a hearing together after North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, but when that hearing finally happened on Wednesday, I actually found myself feeling sorry for the State Department witnesses, Danny Russel, the Assistant Secretary Of State at the Bureau Of East Asian And Pacific Affairs, and Daniel Fried, the State Department’s Coordinator for Sanctions Policy. A few years ago, they might have gotten away with showing up unprepared, with index cards filled with stock phrases. For example, after Chris Hill’s confirmation hearing, I wrote, “The degree to which the ‘august’ senators on the Committee have paid no attention to the conduct of policies they are charged with overseeing is depressing and stupefying, and yet it all somehow still makes for dreadfully dull viewing.” Thankfully, this Senate — or rather, this part of it — is a very different and much better body.
Under the leadership of Cory Gardner, at least one part of the Senate is doing policy oversight right. You can watch the whole thing here, and although it’s two hours long, it will hold the interest of anyone interested enough in North Korea policy to read this site. Do what I did and watch it in increments as time permits.
The main headline from the hearing is that the State Department officials said thatthey areinvestigating more Chinese companies for sanctions violations, but it’s clear from the questions that the senators will not be placated by the sacrifice of mere goats anymore. Their mood is of equal parts alarm and fury — both in front of and behind the scenes, and among both Republicans and Democrats — that Chinese banks are breaking our laws, and that this administration is letting them get away with it. As they did before the hearing, they want the administration to sanction the Chinese banks that launder Kim Jong-un’s money.
By now, everyone should have expected Republicans like Gardner and Rubio to question State about that. State should have known by now that both men would be well-prepared and unsparing in their criticism. The intellects of both men, and good behind-the-scenes work by the staff — including arms control experts and one with extensive sanctions administration experience at the Treasury Department — ensured that they would quickly sift away talking points and cut directly to the issues. Gardner mentioned at one point that the senators were given a common set of briefing materials. It showed in both the insightfulness and focus of the questions, and in the bipartisan unity of their questions’ thrust. I’ve never worked in the Senate, so I wouldn’t know if that’s standard procedure there, but past hearings I’ve watched didn’t run this well. Gardner himself was in complete command of both the material and the room, and gave every appearance of being a man with limitless potential. Indeed, all of the senators were well-prepared. All, regardless of their party or tribal affiliations, asked good or excellent questions.
In the end, however, no one can hurt you more than the people who love you. At 58:17, Senator Menendez began questioning Fried by arguing for secondary sanctions against Chinese banks. He then embarked on a well-prepared, determined, and lawyerly cross-examination of Fried about this. Pressured by Menendez’s questioning and clearly unsure of his material, Fried told Menendez that Dandong Hongxiang was a bank (not true). I don’t think Fried was lying, but he didn’t have command of the facts, and when he got out of his depth, he swam into a rip current. Menendez pinned Fried down on his answer. Then, when his time expired, he went back and pulled Treasury’s announcement, probably talked to his staff, and confirmed that this wasn’t true. At 1:35:30, Menendez returned, rearmed. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what it’s like to have a bad day in the United States Senate.
SEN. MENENDEZ: Mr. Fried, I pride myself on my preparation for these hearings, so I went back to your office after your answer, and I looked at OFAC’s statement of Monday. You said in response to my question we’d sanctioned a bank on Monday. Well, I read from OFAC’s statement that they imposed sanctions on Dan-ong Yonhwang (sic) Industrial Development Company and four individuals. Now, is thatcompany a bank?
A/S FRIED: Sir, it is a financial — it is not a bank — it is the financial company that worked with a sanctioned North Korean bank.
SEN. MENENDEZ: All right, that’s different than saying you’d sanctioned a bank.
A/S FRIED: Yes, sir.
SEN. MENENDEZ: You did not sanction a bank on Monday.
A/S FRIED: Uh, we sanctioned a fi — a Chinese, uh, financial corporation.
SEN. MENENDEZ: All right, well, that’s different than a bank. Let me ask you this. How many banks — banks — has the administration sanctioned as it relates to North Korea?
A/S FRIED: Uh, a nu — do you mean banks in general or Chinese banks?
SEN. MENENDEZ: Chinese — let’s talk about Chinese banks.
A/S FRIED: A number — no Chinese banks.
SEN. MENENDEZ: No Chinese banks.
A/S FRIED: Not in China. We have umm —
SEN. MENENDEZ: That’s my point. That’s the point I was trying to drive at earlier. You have sanctioned no Chinese banks at the end of the day, and they are probably the major financial institutions for North Korea. What this company, as I understand, did was make purchases of sugar and fertilizer on behalf of a designated Korean bank. It’s a trading company, not a financial company. So, when I take testimony as a member of this Committee, I need to make sure that testimony is accurate, because I make decisions based upon it. And I must say that the information you gave me is not accurate. It was not a bank. This was a trading company. And finally, I got the answer that I wanted to hear, which is what I knew, that you’ve sanctioned no Chinese banks that relates (sic) to North Korea. And it is our hesitancy to do so that that takes away one of the major instruments possible to change Chinese thinking. I’m all for persuasion if you can achieve it. But when you can’t, and North Korea continues to advance its nuclear program in a way that becomes more menacing — and its miniaturization and its missile technology — I don’t know at what point we are going to continue to think we can stop them when in fact they’re pretty well on their way. And we allow them to continue to do so. And we don’t use some of the most significant tools that we have. So I’m disappointed that you didn’t give me the right information.
I hold no ill will toward Mr. Fried, but I literally cheered as Menendez calmly bored right to the truth of the matter. Yet on another level, watching this was deeply depressing. Menendez, for all his troubles — and I hope he’ll soon put those behind him — clearly showed us how valuable he is to his state and his country. If the Democrats retake the Senate, I hope he’ll be Committee Chairman again. Markey — watch for him to emerge as a liberal advocate for human rights in North Korea — wisely counseled restraint on South Korea’s military threats. Rubio, who had personally read and commented intelligently on an earlier version of the NKSPEA, had also read and understood C4ADS’s report and its implications. Any one of these senators would have been a better choice as President than the choices before us now. What I can’t help asking myself today is how we elect such good senators, yet such awful presidents.
In the years after the passage of the North Korean Human Rights Act, those who had worked hard to pass that law watched the State Department slow-walk it to a full stop, with Congress seemingly powerless to make it follow the law. That may have been to State’s short-term advantage, but its long-term cost was to plant in many of us a deep distrust of the State Department. We learned that passing a law is only the first step — that laws need robust enforcement mechanisms and a permanent, bipartisan constituency to make sure the executive enforces them. Hence, section 103 briefings, the first installment of which came due just as Kim Jong-un tested his fifth nuke. This Subcommittee is taking full advantage of those oversight provisions. Pray that continues to be the case in the next congress.
I’ll give The Wall Street Journal the final word, if only to make the point that this issue isn’t going away, and that the next POTUS will come under withering pressure to do what this one has not done — enforce our laws.
An invaluable report published last week by South Korea’s Asan Institute and the U.S.-based Center for Advanced Defense Studies found that Hongxiang Industrial and its parent company conducted some $532 million in North Korea business from 2011 to 2015. To put that into perspective, South Korean officials have estimated that the North’s main nuclear facility at Yongbyon cost less than $700 million to construct. [….]
In addition to neutralizing Hongxiang, these sanctions are aimed at persuading other Chinese companies to cut off Pyongyang lest they suffer the same fate, as when the U.S. sanctioned Macau-based Banco Delta Asia for about a year starting in 2005. This is the best hope for squeezing Kim hard enough that he might halt his nuclear drive. But China opposes such measures because it fears that squeezing too hard might cause the collapse of its client state.
Chinese trading firms and especially banks are likelier to cut off Pyongyang if the U.S. follows up promptly with further sanctions. One good sign is that the State Department’s Daniel Fried suggested Wednesday to Congress that more penalties are coming for Chinese firms.
Less promising is that in unsealing its indictment Monday the Justice Department said “there are no allegations of wrongdoing” against the banks involved in Hongxiang’s sanctions-busting. So despite imposing billions of dollars in penalties on a range of European banks for violating sanctions on Iran and others in recent years, the Obama Administration is signaling that Chinese banks aiding North Korea are untouchable.
In an open letter this month to President Obama, 19 Senators led by Colorado’s Cory Gardner quoted our Aug. 19 editorial (“North Korea’s Sanctions Luck”) on the evidence, compiled by United Nations experts, that the Bank of China “allegedly helped a North Korea-linked client get $40 million in deceptive wire transfers through U.S. banks.” That’s one of many examples. [WSJ]
If the House and Senate staff believe the administration has held back on specific targets, such as the Bank of China or any of the 12 banks named in the DHID forfeiture complaint, their next step should be to send the President a section 102(a) letter, which triggers a mandatory investigation, and possible designation.
Just as theywere in 2005, banks are the key pressure points. It’s the banks, not shadowy Chinese trading companies, that are most easily influenced to run away from the legal risks associated with North Korea, and that hold the bulk of Kim Jong-un’s assets.
Yet increasingly, the smartest experts on North Korea’s economy are speculating that China and its banks are being even more unhelpful than most North Korea watchers had imagined. Both Steph Haggard and Nick Eberstadt have raised suspicions that someone — most likely, someone in China — is subsidizing Pyongyang and actively undermining financial sanctions, as shown by the surprising resilience of its currency, even after the closure of Kaesong, and in spite of the fact that North Korea is nominally running a substantial trade deficit. The subsequent exposure of DHID’s role does much to validate suspicions that that support is coming through Chinese financial institutions, in dollars.
But this hidden source of resiliency is also a vulnerability. To Bill Brown, dollarization of the palace economy has helped Pyongyang stabilize that economy in the short term, but also contains longer-term dangers (I’ll let you read about them at his post rather than try to explain them here). The key point is that Pyongyang may be more dependent on the dollar than at any point in its history. Can Pyongyang adapt by further limiting its exposure to the dollar system? If that was a real option for Pyongyang, it would have exercised it either after the Banco Delta Asia episode or since then. As the Justice Department said, Pyongyang needs dollars because sellers take them.
Which is to say, China’s banks are helping Kim Jong-un win his race to nuclear breakout, and by doing so, they’re making a nuclear war on China’s doorstep more likely.
~ ~ ~
Now that I have your attention, I must bore you with some banking law. If you just can’t stand it, skip ahead to the next section. I’m about to set the table for why the 12 Chinese banks named in yesterday’s civil forfeiture complaint — and the Bank of China, which was implicated in a criminal case in Singapore last year — skated, and shouldn’t have.
Under U.S. anti-money laundering (AML) law, banks are expected to know the law, the sanctions regulations, and enough about their customers to know who’s legit and who’s using them to launder money or break sanctions. They’re supposed to have compliance programs in place, including trained compliance officers to identify and report suspicious activity, and special software to identify blocked persons who appear on Treasury’s list of Specially Designated Nationals (“the SDN List”). A key part of this compliance program is called “Know Your Customer,” which is self-explanatory in principle but can be complicated in its application.
If you’re interested — and let’s face it, you probably aren’t — the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, has published enforcement guidelines in 31 CFR Part 501, Appendix A, laying out a schedule of fines based on the number and amount of transactions that broke the sanctions regulations, and the willfulness and egregiousness of the violations. What’s slightly more interesting is that OFAC publishes its settlements against banks that violate sanctions laws. A comparison to how similarly situated European banks have been treated puts the Chinese banks (and Treasury) in a very unfavorable light.
OFAC has often imposed steep fines against banks that didn’t even violate the sanctions regulations intentionally. For example, in March 2015, Paypal settled a penalty case with OFAC for $7.6M after violating multiple sanctions regulations through “reckless disregard” in its sanctions compliance before self-reporting its violations. In August 2015, UBS AG paid OFAC a $1.7M settlement for 222 payments to persons blocked for terrorist connections. UBS AG self-reported, but only after learning that OFAC was investigating the payments. UBS had a sufficient compliance program in place; it just interpreted the law incorrectly, concluding that certain investment-related transactions on behalf of a designated client weren’t blocked (wrong). In February, Barclays Bank paid OFAC a $2.5M settlement for processing 159 transactions, totaling just over $3M, for a person blocked under the Zimbabwe Sanctions Regulations, masked behind entities that did not appear on the SDN list. The violation was the inadvertent result of faulty compliance verification software. The bank did not self-disclose. Either way, OFAC expects banks to have effective compliance programs. As excuses, bad software and bad lawyers won’t cut it. Self-disclosure mitigates the penalty, but it’s not a defense.
Willful violations, on the other hand, can be extremely costly. In March 2015, Commerzbank paid OFAC a $258M settlement for processing 1600 transactions in violation of the Iran, Sudan, Burma, Cuba sanctions regulations. The bank stripped transaction data out of the wire transfers to conceal their nexus to sanctioned persons from their correspondents. In October 2015, Crédit Agricole Corporate and Investment Bank paid OFAC a $330M settlement for processing over 4,000 transactions in violation of Sudan, Burma, Cuba, and Iran sanctions regulations. Once again, OFAC found that Crédit Agricole and its predecessor banks stripped data out of the wire transfers.
In the case of the 12 Chinese banks named in yesterday’s forfeiture complaint, their AML compliance procedures were, at best, inexcusably sloppy. They serviced international transactions for shell companies that were registered in the British Virgin Islands or the Seychelles, and that listed fictitious addresses in Hong Kong office towers. Yeah, but who among us hasn’t done that as a youthful indiscretion? For those of you in the banking industry, the obvious answer is any banks whose Know-Your-Customercompliance programs do their due diligence and have kept up with strict new beneficial ownership rules in the EU and the U.S., especially since that whole Panama Papers thing, and especially for jurisdictions subject to U.N. sanctions and section 311.
And it’s not like much due diligence should have been necessary, given that Ma boasted openly that her customers were from “the DPRK elite group” and was an outspoken proponent of the trade that propped Pyongyang up.
To add further to the banks’ culpability here, some of the shell companies used the same Tortola, B.V.I. address as DCB Finance Limited, which was exposed for its role in sanctions violations when the Panama Papers went public (surely compliance software should have caught this!). According to the forfeiture complaint, “[a]s recently as June, July and August of 2016, nearly $8 million has transited through U.S. correspondent bank accounts related to three DHID front companies,” so some of this conduct is very recent. If nothing else, it adds more fuel to what Bill Newcomb and I have said about invoking additional beneficial ownership disclosure and record-keeping rules for North Korea.
In the case of the Bank of China, however, it got away with the AML equivalent of murder. Like Commerzbank and BNP Paribas, its employees stripped data out of wire transfers and willfully deceived their U.S. correspondents. There’s simply no defending Treasury’s failure to take enforcement action, given that BoC’s conduct was willful and egregious, unlike the other banks that simply got sloppy.
For OFAC’s penalties to be consistent, all 13 of these banks’ compliance officers ought to be collecting documents and reviewing affidavits with their lawyers right now. Instead, by saying that “[t]here are no allegations of wrongdoing by the U.S. correspondent banks or foreign banks that maintain these accounts,” the Justice Department sent a very different message to the Chinese banking industry.
That’s why tomorrow’s hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should not let up on what Senator Gardner and Senator Corker have demanded. They should not accept China’s reported arrest and investigation of Ma Xiaohong, its reported (and belated) investigation of KKBC executives, or its actions to stop North Korean trade representatives from leaving the country as signs that China is serious about enforcement at last. The DHID ships that have been impounded will be released in due course. A reported bribery investigation into the Dandong customs office that passed Ma’s wares into North Korea is self-serving from China’s perspective; China would rather package this as an anti-corruption investigation than admit that it bowed to U.S. pressure. China is not sharing information with DOJ and Treasury about its investigation, and U.S. officials don’t believe China’s actions are coordinated with theirs. More recently, China has lashed out at the U.S. for enforcing its laws:
China’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday voiced its disapproval of U.S. actions against the businesswoman, Ma Xiaohong, and her Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. a day after Washington announced criminal charges and sanctions against her and the trading company for allegedly acting as financial fronts for North Korean companies on U.S. blacklists. “We oppose efforts by any country to use their domestic laws to impose ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ over Chinese entities or individuals,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing, in response to a query on the U.S. actions against Hongxiang Industrial. [WSJ]
That’s some chutzpah, coming from a government that just unilaterally claimed the whole South China Sea and lost an international arbitration testing the merits of its claims, or that bullies Seoul with unilateral sanctions when the latter tries to defend itself from Beijing’s rabid dog. The real unilateralism is yielding to global consensus, voting for U.N. resolutions, and failing to enforce them. Unilateralism is claiming a sovereign right to misuse a distant nation’s financial system to break its laws and threaten its security. Maybe next time, U.S. authorities shouldn’t fly to Beijing to share their investigative findings, and all the sources and methods that approach may have compromised. Maybe they should just file indictments, freeze assets, and let Xi Jinping read about them in The Global Times. U.S.-China relations may have to get worse before they can get better. They may have to get worse to prevent them from becoming catastrophic. Predators need limits.
Instead, we should take China’s actions as signs that Beijing will do as little as it can get away with doing, but will acquiesce to its enforcement obligations if we attach a high enough cost to its tolerance of North Korea’s violations. We should seek to divide the self-interest of the banks in avoiding penalties and maintaining their dollar access from the interests of the Chinese government, which is to make mischief, drive the Americans out of Asia, and end up dominating both Koreas by default. We should take note of reports that North Korean trading company executives fear repercussions for getting caught. The administration should exploit those fears and divisions, turn as many of those executives as it can, and find out what they know. Above all, it should heed the conclusion of C4ADS, the plucky little NGO that showed it how good investigation works:
With the right resources and political will, it can be possible to significantly disrupt the DPRK’s illicit overseas earnings, and in the process raise the cost of its brazen proliferation activity. As the DPRK grows increasingly dependent on its overseas networks, it creates an opportunity for the international community to leverage their financial intelligence tools to squeeze the regime’s illicit activity. While actors inside North Korea can operate with impunity, abroad they are subject to international norms. A single shipment can require significant documentation and effort, including maintaining corporate entities, processing cross-border payments, or acquiring insurance or bank letters of credit, all of which necessarily leave paper trails that can be followed. By exposing these risk points and peeling away the infrastructure of DPRK illicit overseas networks, the cost and difficulty of operating abroad could rise dramatically.
Following the money is likely to be the most effective means for the international community to coerce the Kim regime toward concessions and a cessation of their nuclear program. Getting there, however, will require significantly expanded efforts to continually investigate, monitor, and act against DPRK entities as they further evolve to evade sanctions. This report aims to build a foundation for this effort. [C4ADS]
A surprising finding? North Korea’s network isn’t really all that big.
A key finding from the UN Panel of Experts was the observation that “While [DPRK] networks appear complex, their key nodes consist of a limited number of individuals and intermediaries…. Although shell companies can be swiftly changed, the individuals responsible for establishing and managing them have remained, often for years.” [C4ADS]
I’ll give Stephan Haggard the penultimate word.
What these reports show clearly is that the “sanctions don’t work” litany is deeply misleading. This trope assumes a hardy North Korean regime ready to resist any pressure no matter how intense. That is simply not the story; rather, the story is that North Korea has not been forced to make any adjustments because it has been able to conduct business largely if not wholly as usual. How does that show that sanctions don’t work? [WTT]
Yes, some Chinese trading companies may indeed run away from North Korea because of the DHID indictments. Those that don’t will probably jack up their commissions from 20 percent to 30 percent, which is itself a sanctions cost for Kim Jong-un. But any casual reader of U.N. Panel of Experts knows that North Korea’s network of enablers in China, though it is finite, is also much more extensive than this. If this indictment is just a beginning, it’s a good one. I have no objection to starting with smaller targets to scare bigger ones. But if this is all we do, North Korea’s network will recover quickly. One way or another, if we mean to prevent war, we must send a clear message to the Chinese banking industry that there will be no more business as usual with Kim Jong-un.
~ ~ ~
(Edited after publication to include China’s reaction to the indictments.)
As of yesterday, and for the first time ever, the U.S. Treasury Department has frozen the assets of Chinese entities for violating North Korea sanctions, and the Justice Department has indicted them for sanctions violations, conspiracy, and money laundering. The company in question is the Liaoning Hongxiang Group of companies, of which Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Company Limited, or DHID, is the largest component. The individuals are Hong Jinhua, Luo Chuanxu, Zhou Jianshu, and Ma Xiaohong, the CEO of the Liaoning Hongxiang Group.
All were first implicated by the remarkable investigative work of the Center for Advanced Defense Studies and the Asan Institute, which is wonderful and also troubling, in that it should not have been left to a small nonprofit research group with funding from a South Korean think tank to do the work that the Treasury and Justice Departments should have done — protecting such core U.S. security interests as global nonproliferation, the integrity of the financial system, and freedom of speech in our own towns and neighborhoods. It is wonderful and disturbing that two very young and very bright people with a tiny budget and no security clearances have now done more damage to the financial networks that sustain His Corpulency’s misrule than the Obama administration did on its own in eight years. (Full disclosure: I met with C4ADS a few times since they started work last fall, to help them focus and target their investigation.) Here is how they did it.
To map these growing overseas networks, this report used open source databases, including corporate registries; court filings; Equasis maritime database records; customs and trade data provided by Panjiva, a customs trade data aggregator; and real time data on ship activities provided by Windward, a maritime data and analytics platform. The compiled information was consolidated using Palantir’s Gotham network analysis platform.
In Part I, we focused on building bulk datasets on companies, individuals, and ships. By using corporate and tax registries in East Asian countries, we were able to identify significant points of convergence across seemingly disparate networks and identify 562 ships, companies, and individuals within one degree of separation from known DPRK illicit and regime entities.
In Part II, we identified key nodes from our expanded dataset for a more in depth investigation. We focused, in particular, on one Chinese trading conglomerate that has conducted over $500 million of trade with the DPRK in the past five years. Within this network, we were able to identify its subsidiary and affiliated entities that have transacted an additional $300 million with sanctioned Burmese and North Korean entities, helped maintain the cyber infrastructure of the DPRK, and traded in various goods and services that raise serious non-proliferation concerns. [C4ADS]
The researchers also pulled and read court filings in China, Japan, and Hong Kong to uncover what appear to be significant pieces of North Korea’s overseas financial support and shipping networks. Typically for criminal networks, the North Koreans mix legal and illegal business to conceal their illicit activity and disguise the origin of their profits. The result is that some businesses “are likely to be inadvertently facilitating North Korean illicit activity,” while others, like DHID, do so willingly. I won’t try to do justice to C4ADS’s report here; just read the whole thing. Among its findings —
The report uncovered 248 companies, mostly registered in Hong Kong, that operate North Korea’s shipping fleet, much of it concealed behind shell companies and flags of convenience.
Liaoning Hongxiang Group is directly responsible for operating 10 of those ships, which import North Korean coal and help Pyongyang get around the “livelihood” loophole in UNSCR 2270.
DHID’s parent company, the Liaoning Hongxiang Group, helped to run the Cambodian ship registry, which Cambodia is currently in the process of nationalizing. C4ADS found that Cambodia in the principal registrar of reflagged North Korean ships. UNSCR 2270 prohibits the reflagging of ships owned, controlled, or crewed by North Korea.
DHID’s annual trade volume with North Korea was more than twice that of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and more than enough to fund North Korea’s nuclear program.
DHID may have facilitated North Korean exports to the United States, which would violate Executive Order 13570.
DHID has an equity stake the Bank of Dandong, which has previously been implicated in handling money transfers to North Korea, in violation of U.N. sanctions.
The Liaoning Hongxiang Group’s Vice Chairman had dealings with a sanctioned Burmese tycoon, Tay Za, who also bought a nuclear reactor from North Korea.
DHID entered into a joint venture with the Korea National Insurance Corporation, which defector Kim Kwang-jin has accused of insurance fraud, and which has been designated by the EU for the freezing of its assets for proliferation-related activities.
DHID’s parent company is a key facilitator of North Korea’s cyber architecture, which North Korea used in cyberattacks against SWIFT; against South Korean banks, nuclear power plants, and news media organizations; and against Sony Pictures. The empty brackets are for Chinese characters that WordPress can’t read:
Companies associated with the Liaoning Hongxiang Group provide services that are critical to the underlying cyber architecture of the DPRK, including the country’s primary email relay service, facilities from which hackers are alleged to operate, and IT firms producing software with possible military and regime applicability as will be discussed in this section. The Chilbosan Hotel [ ] in Shenyang, one of Liaoning Hongxiang’s joint ventures with the DPRK,117 is alleged to be the staging area for Bureau 121, a group of North Korean hackers.118 119 The source of the allegations is a North Korean defector, Kim Heun Kwang, a former computer science professor in Pyongyang, who escaped from North Korea in 2004 and gave detailed testimony on Bureau 121, a group that began large-scale operations in China in 2005.120 The group is reported to be comprised of about 1800 “cyber-warriors” and is considered the “elite of the military.”121 It has been widely reported that Bureau 121 may have been responsible for the 2014 Sony hack.122 The Chilbosan Hotel is majority owned by the North Korean Pyongyang Economic Exchange Society [ ], 123 which controls a 70% share of the company.124 The remaining 30% is owned by Liaoning Hongxiang Group member Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. Ltd.
The Chilbosan Hotel also shares a physical address with a company called Silibank.127 128 Silibank is an email relay service that charges for sending and receiving email through servers that connect from the DPRK, through China, and then to the outside world. Established in September 2001, Silibank is reportedly the DPRK’s first ISP provider,129 charging for its service in USD for each kilobyte sent.130 The company’s domain, silibank.com, is currently registered to a Chinese company called Liaoning Zhongtian Real Estate Development Co. [ ].
And finally, C4ADS found a link between DHID and North Korea’s WMD-related procurement operations:
Information found on Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Group shows that in several online classified ads and databases, Dandong Hongxiang sold products that could qualify as potential military and nuclear dual use products under the U.S. Department of Commerce Bureau of Industry and Security export restrictions.105 These goods included at least four dual use products: 99.7% pure aluminum ingots,106 aluminum oxide (Al2O3), ammonium paratungstate (APT), and tungsten trioxide (WO3).107 Information discovered using Panjiva customs records shows that Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Group sent two shipments of aluminum oxide worth a total of $253,219 to the DPRK as recently as September 2015.108 Classified ads posted by Shenyang Hongyang Fine Cermaics Co., which according to the Chinese business registry is owned by a Chinese national named Ma Xiaohong ???, listed “industrial spaceship” as a potential application for aluminum oxide (further investigation is required to confirm if they are the same individual).109 110
We cannot definitively identify the end-user of such goods, but there are clear dual use applications for the products listed. According to a leaked government cable, North Korea has sought to aquire aluminum ingots in the past. The cable further states that “these commodities have dual-use applications for the products listed. According to a leaked government cable, North Korea has sought to aquire aluminum ingots in the past. The cable further states that “these commodities have dual-use applications and could possibly be linked to the North Korean nuclear program.”111 Ammonium paratungstate and tungsten trioxide are byproducts of separating tungsten from its ore.112 A U.S. patent filed in 2010 states that tungsten trioxide is one of several oxidizing agents appropriate for use in a missile design with increased aerodynamic stability.113 According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, aluminum oxide is a component used to resist corrosion in gas centrifuges during uranium enrichment.114 In April 2013, a British company discovered that a firm they had been sending aluminum oxide to had links to the Iranian government’s nuclear program and immediately “ceased transactions. The article stated that “Aluminium oxide is an important material in gas centrifuges used to enrich uranium.”115 [C4ADS]
~ ~ ~
Strictly speaking, the Treasury and Justice Departments sanctioned and prosecuted almost none of this conduct. Let’s turn to the Treasury Department designations first. The “NPWMD” means the assets were frozen under Executive Order 13382, which makes any transaction that facilitates North Korea’s WMD procurement not only sanctionable, but punishable with criminal penalties under section 206 of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, or IEEPA.
“Today’s action exposes a key illicit network supporting North Korea’s weapons proliferation,” said Adam J. Szubin, acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the U.S. Department of the Treasury. “DHID and its employees sought to evade U.S. and UN sanctions, facilitating access to the U.S. financial system by a designated entity. Treasury will take forceful action to pressure North Korea’s proliferation network and to protect the U.S. financial system from abuse.”
OFAC designated China-based DHID for acting for or on behalf of North Korean-based KKBC. Specifically, DHID used an illicit network of front companies, financial facilitators, and trade representatives to facilitate transactions on behalf of KKBC. Ma Xiaohong, Zhou Jianshu, Hong Jinhua, and Luo Chuanxu were designated for acting for or on behalf of DHID.
KKBC was designated by OFAC under E.O. 13382 and the UN pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2270 for providing financial services in support of the previously designated entities Tanchon Commercial Bank and the Korea Hyoksin Trading Corporation. Both of those entities were designated pursuant to E.O. 13382 and UNSCR 1718 for their roles in North Korea’s WMD and missile programs. [Treasury Department press release]
As a result of Treasury’s designations, all dollar-denominated assets of the five targets are frozen, and U.S. persons are prohibited from doing business with them.
Not to be outdone, the Justice Department has unwrapped an early Christmas present by unsealing an indictment of Hong, Luo, Ma, and Zhou, and DHID for conspiracy, money laundering, and IEEPA violations, for helping a sanctioned North Korean entity circumvent sanctions. That’s about as much as you’ll see about proliferation in these indictments; the only link to proliferation is the money DHID moved for a North Korean bank that had been sanctioned for proliferation. The Justice Department also filed a civil forfeiture action against 25 bank accounts belonging to DHID, deposited in a who’s-who of Chinese banks. Want to know the names of the Chinese banks? You know you do.
China Merchants Bank
Shanghai Pudong Development Bank
Agricultural Bank of China
Bank of Communications Co. of China
Bank of Dandong (as predicted)
China Construction Bank
Guangdong Development Bank
Industrial & Commercial Bank of China
Bank of Dalian
Bank of Jinzhou
Hua Xia Bank
China Minsheng Banking Corporation
Contrary to what some news reports have written, a forfeiture action does not freeze assets; if effectively confiscates them. The ownership interest of the person who thought he owned the assets is legally extinguished if the government proves that assets are “involved in” illicit activity.
The banks themselves have no standing to challenge the forfeiture unless they can prove that they’d already closed the accounts. Typically, the feds will use 18 U.S.C. 981(k) to take an equivalent amount to the asset right out of the foreign bank’s U.S.-based correspondent account. It’s up to the foreign bank to make itself whole by taking an equivalent sum from the account holder, something that account holders usually agree to in the fine print of their account-holder agreements.
The actions are venued in the District of New Jersey because the Chinese banks that serviced DHID and the numerous shell companies it set up used Standard Chartered Bank and Deutsche Bank as their U.S. correspondent banks, and both banks based their dollar-clearing operations in New Jersey. I’ve explained how this works a few times before, but DOJ explained it well in its forfeiture complaint.
32. An interbank, also known as a correspondent bank, is a financial institution that provides services on behalf of another financial institution. It can facilitate wire transfers, conduct business transactions, accept deposits and gather documents on behalf of another financial institution. Correspondent banks are able to support international wire transfers for their customers in a currency that their customers normally do not hold on reserve. Correspondent banks in the U.S. facilitate these wire transfers by allowing foreign banks, located exclusively overseas, to maintain accounts at the correspondent bank in the U.S.
33. To obtain goods and services in the international market place, as North Korea must, it needs access to U.S. dollars as some international vendors require purchases to be made in U.S. dollars. As a result, North Korean entities, including designated entities such as KKBC, need access to the U.S. financial system.
The New Jersey venue is interesting, in that most correspondent banks operate in New York. (I wonder if that means we can expect to see another indictment in the Southern District of New York one day soon.)
~ ~ ~
Although news reports have said that the indictment was for aiding North Korea’s WMD programs, that’s only indirectly true. The crux of the government’s case is that after August 2009, when Treasury designated Korea Kwangsong Banking Corporation (KKBC) for WMD proliferation and blocked its access to the dollar system, DHID stepped in to serve as KKBC’s workaround and to launder its money. (Broadly defined, money laundering means moving or spending money that is “involved in” certain specified unlawful activity, whether as proceeds or as an instrumentality.) I’m often asked at this juncture why the North Koreans don’t just use Renminbi. I’ll let the Justice Department answer that.
35. Following the KKBC’s designation as an SDN by the U.S. Department of the Treasury in August 2009, DHID began working to find ways to conduct trade on behalf of KKBC despite the U.S. sanctions. One means of doing so was to use Chinese currency rather than U.S. dollars to conduct commodities transactions, so as to avoid sending money through the U.S. in violation of IEEPA. In July 2010, the City of Dandong, China highlighted press reports of a pilot program between DHID and KKBC to allow Chinese Renminbi (RMB) transactions to facilitate trade between China and North Korea.
36. North Korea’s trading needs, however, cannot be met using only Chinese currency. As a result, KKBC has continued to access the U.S. financial system to facilitate the purchase of goods in violation of U.S. sanctions. KKBC has done so by using DHID and its front companies.
In other words, what I said before — North Korea uses the dollar because that’s what sellers want, and also because (as I’ll explain later) Pyongyang is dollarizing to stabilize its economy.
When KKBC wanted to buy something in dollars — in this case, sugar and urea (used for fertilizer and explosives, and also, ewww) — it would place an order with DHID, which then bought the merchandise at a substantial mark-up — as much as 23 percent, through any one of 22 different front companies or shell companies it set up for just that purpose. That’s the kind of premium that, at least according to our friends in the FBI, people only charge to take the risks associated with breaking the law. Ma and DHID were initially well-positioned to charge these commissions due to Ma’s connections with Jang Song-thaek. Only when the guns of Jang’s firing squad fell silent, Ma’s business kept right on booming.
DHID and KKBC kept a ledger where KKBC would credit or debit DHID’s dollar account in KKBC in Pyongyang. The most suspicious transactions — those that involved a North Korean nexus — were all kept off the wires. Instead, DHID set up a whole series of shell companies, mostly registered in the British Virgin Islands or the Seychelles, and listing fictitious addresses in Hong Kong.
And how did DOJ find all of this out? Much of it obviously began with the C4ADS-Asan investigation, but there is much evidence in the indictment and forfeiture complaint that C4ADS didn’t write about. And why sugar and urea instead of, say, aluminum oxide? I can only speculate that those transactions were the easy ones to prove. Prosecutors prefer to charge the conduct that’s easiest to prove, especially if some of the other transactions with more jury appeal might also require proving up a longer, more complex chain of shell companies and beneficial owners.
All of which is our cue for a round of “Panama Papers Bingo,” which will allow you to read fun stuff about theshellcompaniesnamedin theindictment and theircorporate officers. By all means, leave a comment if you find something interesting in there, although I may hold your comment unpublished for a while for legal reasons.
Although the forfeiture action doesn’t say how much money was in the 25 accounts, it describes multiple transactions in the millions of dollars, including one that was for around $11 million. It wouldn’t surprise me if we learned that the total was well over $25 million, the amount that was blocked (but not forfeited) in the case of the Banco Delta Asia action.
Anyway, now you know why we wrote a section on “forfeiture of property” into the NKSPEA. Originally, we tried to create a special fund to pay for North Korea sanctions enforcement, broadcasting, and humanitarian purposes. Because that funding provision ended up on the cutting-room floor, the Justice and Treasury Departments will put the forfeited money into their respective forfeiture funds and use the money to pay for law enforcement operations. Where, as here, DOJ and Treasury worked the case together, they’ll typically work a deal for splitting that money up between them.
~ ~ ~
So what will the impact of all of this be? Financially speaking, DHID and Ma aren’t likely to survive the experience. Because 80% of DHID’s business was North Korea-related, His Porcine Majesty will probably feel a significant impact. DOJ’s indictment quotes a DHID powerpoint presentation that claims that as of 2012, DHID handled 20% of the volume of Sino-North Korean trade, and claims that DHID’s business was growing at 30 percent each year. I have no way of knowing if that’s true or not, but my guess is that these figures are exaggerated for shareholder consumption. After all, DHID was willing to file a false certification with a certain Panama-based law firm — any guesses, kids? — denying that it had any links to North Korea (exhibit 3).
The greater effect may be the in terrorem impact this action will have on companies like the 88 Queensway Group that had dealings with sanctioned North Korean entities and felt untouchable, possibly because they thought their Chinese political connections would protect them from Uncle Sam. Ma herself was a made member of the Chinese Communist Party, and Sam Pa was a former Chinese spy. Equally well-connected figures may feel less invincible today.
The bad news? Not only the fact that no Chinese banks are facing indictments for facilitating Hongxiang’s willful, long-standing money-laundering scheme, but also, the fact that in its press release, the Justice Department said that “[t]here are no allegations of wrongdoing by the U.S. correspondent banks or foreign banks that maintain these accounts.” I’ll discuss that in more detail in tomorrow’s post.
The defection of North Korean Deputy Ambassador Thae Yong-ho two weeks ago has tolled a ghoulish vigil in which bloggers, op-ed writers, and academics have speculated about the longevity of His Porcine Majesty. Some of them still read a long lifeline on his palm. South Korean President (and master troll) Park Geun-hye, on the other hand, sees “serious cracks” in the regime and says that the cohesion of the oligarchs is “collapsing.”
“The North Korean regime is taking no account of the people’s lives, while it oppresses the people with continuous rule by fear,” she said. “Recently, even the elite in the North is collapsing and high-profile figures are increasingly escaping their homeland and defecting to foreign countries. As the signs of serious cracks emerge, the regime’s instability is growing.” [Joongang Ilbo]
Park has several advantages over the rest of us. She probably has a good idea of what the seven North Korean diplomats who’ve defected this year — plus any other senior defectors we don’t know about yet, and those who defected in recent years — have said in their NIS debriefings. She probably has some idea of what the NIS found in their laptops and cell phones. Of course, it’s possible that she and the NIS are sexing up or spinning those reports, so the rest of us do what we do best — we speculate.
Christopher Green insists that Thae’s defection means “nothing” for the regime’s stability because Thae isn’t central to the regime’s power structure, other defections didn’t shake the regime’s stability before, and the psychological impact on the proles will be slight. Andrei Lankov acknowledges that the rise in high-level defections is significant, wisely doesn’t claim to know whether the regime will collapse in months or years, but less wisely, is very certain that the defections have nothing to do with sanctions. In an article that’s worth reading for its opening anecdote alone, Mark Fitzpatrick posits that “[s]uch defections reflect fissures in the regime,” but questions whether they “may also signal an impending regime collapse.” John Lee offers the most bearish interpretation of Kim Jong-un’s future, writing that North Korea “is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration.”
In no particular order: I share Lee’s hope, but not his predictive confidence. Green’s is a dangerously tendentious prediction for uncertain times, and as we’ll see below, it didn’t take long for events to supersede it. I can’t quite reconcile Fitzpatrick’s view with itself; a regime like North Korea’s can’t be both riven by fissures and stable. I’ll meet Andrei halfway and admit that multiple factors are probably contributing to the recent defections, including the fear of political purges, self-interest outweighing a decaying ideology, low pay, lack of confidence in regime leadership, concern for their children, the loss of income from sanctions and South Korean diplomatic pressure, and officials’ fears that Pyongyang will hold them responsible for the loss of that income or for the defections of colleagues. Other analysts and South Korean officials think sanctions are also a factor, and the coincidence of events suggests that they’re right:
Both experts said that the implementation of recent UN Security Council sanctions may have been one determining factor in understanding the recent flurry of diplomatic defections.
Jeong said the salaries of DPRK diplomats are not high, meaning many of them have to make ends meet by sharing apartments, for example. And such personal economic difficulties may have pushed some of them to defect, he said.
“As the international community has strengthened sanctions against the North and surveillance of North Korean diplomats has increased, they can no longer make foreign currency as they did in the past,” Cheong said, citing old tactics such as the selling of counterfeit cigarettes or liquors.
Heightened pressure from the North Korean regime may have also driven them to the brink, the Korea University professor said.
“Kim Jong Un has had trouble in securing government funds after (the latest) sanctions, making the North’s foreign economic activities hard,” said Lim. “So, he has increased the pressure on diplomats abroad in charge of funds management.” [NK News, Dagyum Ji]
But if much of the conventional wisdom still predicts stability, conventional wisdom has a poor predictive history.
[Everything is absolutely fine.]
Most experts thought the regimes in East Germany, Romania, Albania, Libya, and Syria were as stable as Lehman Brothers, right up to the moments when each of those “stable” regimes fell. Most Sovietologists failed to predict the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union. Status quo bias is a powerful thing. The conventional analyst who predicts that the status quo will go on looks smart every day — until the day when he suddenly doesn’t. The unconventional analyst who predicts doom looks like a lunatic every day until the day when he suddenly looks like a prophet. The only day history remembers is that last one.
But prediction is a fool’s errand. Great events often start with infinitesimal and unpredictable ones — an official’s misunderstanding of an order, or the courage of one forgotten man in a crowd. Wise analysts do not predict such things. At most, they interpret a regime’s political and financial health from whatever vital signs are known. Once, the North Korean regime had a very strong political body. Since Kim Il-sung’s death, that body has decayed steadily. We don’t know enough to diagnose the disease or assess the progression of the atrophy, but defections by diplomats, like the desertion of soldiers, are contrary to the protagonists’ interests in normal times, and are not normal events. They suggest that the regime is unhealthy, but they are only symptoms. In North Korea, most of the vital signs are unknowable. Even then, they can’t predict when some infection kills a vulnerable host.
Sometimes, it is easier to alter the course of history than it is to predict it.
The view that comes closest to my own is that of Stephan Haggard, who thinks that the recent defections could cause a financial crisis, which could lead to regime collapse. Haggard points to reports claiming that some of the defecting diplomats and officials have taken tens of millions of dollars with them — amounts which may seem small by most nations’ standards, but which are indispensable to Pyongyang when it’s under rising pressure from U.N. sanctions, the loss of its Kaesong income, and complaints that its labor exports violate the rights of the workers. The reports, however, are anonymously sourced, and they’ve been inconsistent about what (if any) amounts the diplomats absconded with.
Whatever the amounts, however, I agree that these defections could cause a financial crisis in Pyongyang. I just agree for a different reason.
A North Korean diplomat stationed in Russia defected last month, a local source said Thursday, amid a series of defections from the communist country to seek a new life in South Korea.
The diplomat from Pyongyang’s trade representatives under its consulate general in Vladivostok could have possibly defected with family, according to the source who asked not to be named. [….]
The diplomat is known to have been in charge of covering trade issues while sending necessary goods back to North Korea, according to the source. [Yonhap]
Following Yonhap’s report, New Focus International confirmed what I’d suspected — that North Korea’s former trade representative in Vladivostok was not only a purchasing agent for Pyongyang but a Bureau 39 fund manager. Vladivostok isn’t in Europe, so I’ll assume he isn’t the same person as the Europe-based slush fund manager whose defection was also recently reported (perhaps that person was the Bulgaria-based diplomat referred to here). Another Moscow-based trade rep defectedin July. Then, there’s the recently reported defection in China of the man who controlled North Korea’s slush funds in Southeast Asia. All told, Seoul says at least seven North Korean diplomats have defected this year alone. Separately, “informed sources” have told Yonhap that ten North Korean diplomats defected in 2015, including another Bureau 39 fund manager based in Singapore. This doesn’t include the colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau who defected last year, the high-ranking North Korean banker who defectedtwo years ago, or the diplomat based in Ethiopia who defected in 2013.
Pyongyang’s response to the defections — recalling diplomats to punish them for the defection of colleagues, recalling the families of diplomats back to Pyongyang, dispatching more security agents to surveil diplomats, and reshuffling or recalling embassy staff — risks pushing other diplomats to the breaking point.
If most of these reports of defections are roughly accurate, the NIS, CIA, and Treasury probably have a more complete map of Kim Jong-un’s bank accounts, assets, and financial networks around the world than at any time in North Korea’s history. (Ironically, Thae Yong-ho, who was posted in the capital of a U.N. Security Council member and U.S. ally with a strong regulatory and legal system, may be the least likely of these men to contribute much to that map, beyond the financing of his own embassy.)
So far, the Obama administration has abstained from taking any public action to block those funds. Its increasingly apparent failure to do this has already attracted criticism in the media, and the more Kim Jong-unprovokes in the coming months, the louder that criticism will become. It’s certain to come up at a now-overdue briefing to Congress on the implementation and enforcement of the new North Korea sanctions law. The more attention Kim Jong-un attracts, the more likely it is that Congress will demand hearings on what Treasury has done to enforce the law. Knowing this should make some bankers very nervous.
I’m no expert, but I don’t see how this could be a coincidence.
A North Korean official managing money for North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Europe has disappeared, raising speculation that he might have defected with a large amount of state funds, a local media report said Friday.
Citing anonymous sources, major local daily newspaper the Dong-A Ilbo reported that the official in charge of money management for the so-called No. 39 office of the Workers’ Party vanished in June. The office is known for running money for Kim’s regime.
The North Korean official is currently staying in an unidentified European country. He and his two sons are also under the protection of local authorities, the report claimed.
The media report, which has not been independently verified, said that he disappeared with hundreds of billions of won that had been under his management. He was reported to have worked in the same European country for the past 20 years. [Yonhap]
For those of you keeping track, in the last year, that’s one banker from Russia, one diplomat from Russia, a colonel in the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the number two guy at the embassy in London, and possibly the general who runs Pyongyang’s money laundering operations in Southeast Asia. For reasons I explained here, I also believe we know a great deal about the location of North Korean slush funds in China.
According to informed sources, 10 North Korean diplomats defected to the South last year, but the number had reached almost the same level in the first half of this year. Of these defectors, most came from the North’s overseas missions in Europe, with some coming from Southeast Asian countries. [Yonhap]
As I said about Thae Yong-ho’s defection: trends that can’t continue, don’t. By now, there can be little doubt that if U.S. and South Korean intelligence agencies are cooperating, they must know where a large portion (if not the majority) of North Korean slush funds are. Of course, the North Koreans will be scrambling to move that money today. As they do, nervous bankers around the world will be filing Suspicious Transaction Reports. Gleeful regulators will tent their fingers and cackle watching them make stupid mistakes. This is a rare opportunity — too rare to waste.
In my policy discussions about North Korea, two of the smartest sanctions skeptics I’ve debated are professors John Park and James Walsh. Not only are they both genuinely nice people, their skepticism points to flaws and gaps in the sanctions regime, and that skepticism ultimately serves to improve the quality of the sanctions and their enforcement. They’ve been particularly persuasive about the importance of pursuing “North Korea Inc.,” Pyongyang’s extensive and shadowy network of agents and trading companies in China, who facilitate not only its legal trade, but also act as money launderers and purchasing agents for its WMD programs and luxury goods demands. Such is the nature of money laundering; it uses legal trade to conceal illegal trade.
One answer to Park and Walsh’s criticisms is to add one additional special measure, found at 31 U.S.C. 5318A(b)(2), to the special measures Treasury previously announced on June 1st. This measure would require financial institutions to collect information on the beneficial ownership of property by North Korean persons, or of property in North Korea. That would mirror the European Union’s recent blacklisting of North Korea for money laundering, which triggers increased beneficial ownership reporting rules.
Happily, I’m joined in this view by the most accomplished North Korea sanctions expert I know, William J. Newcomb, who previously served with the CIA, Treasury, State Department, and the U.N. Panel of Experts (here’s a link to an address Bill gave to the Korea Society). Today, Bill and I posted a public comment on Treasury’s proposed special measures against North Korean money laundering. You can read the full text of the comment below the fold, annotated with hyperlinks. It should also be available on the federal regulations portal shortly.
To read the full comment, click the “continue reading” button below.