Stephan Haggard has published the second of two comments on H.R. 1771, the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act, at KEIA’s blog, following Bruce Klingner’s first post on the subject. Haggard and I have a history of genial disagreement about North Korea policy, but I find much more in this thoughtful and well-considered post to expand on than to argue with. Haggard has obviously read and understood the legislation before opining about it. (Marcus Noland, Haggard’s co-author at Witness to Transformation, has also commented on the legislation, at about 37 minutes into this audio.)
Among our perhaps narrowing differences, Haggard clearly has more reservations than I do about the impact of sanctions on nominally “legitimate” North Korean commerce:
One concern, however, is whether the legislation has intentionally or unintentionally blurred the line between WMD-related and commercial trade. The justification for doing so is arguably legitimate. In such a highly centralized regime, it is difficult if not impossible to draw the line between illicit and commercial activities. Nonetheless, to date the international community has sought to draw such a line, and for several reasons. [KEIA Blog]
What follows will merely expand on what Haggard acknowledges — that Pyongyang itself has blurred that distinction. Somehow, Pyongyang has found the financial means to finance its WMD programs and its brutal security forces, and although its finances are opaque, ostensibly lawful commerce such as mining almost certainly plays a key role in paying for it. Under its byungjin policy, Pyongyang asserts the intention of having it both ways, enriching itself economically while still developing an effective nuclear arsenal. H.R. 1771 seeks to force Pyongyang to choose between those priorities, without harboring any illusions about which alternative Pyongyang will choose, at least initially. But we’ll return to sub-topic that later in this post.
H.R. 1771 isn’t the first recognition of North Korea’s co-mingling of legitimate and illicit funds. Two months before H.R. 1771 was introduced, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 2094 (2013), which also recognized the risk that North Korea misuses both commerce and consular activities. The resolution responded by “targeting the illicit activities of diplomatic personnel, transfers of bulk cash, and the country’s banking relationships,” and by requiring “enhanced monitoring” of “assets or resources, including bulk cash, that could contribute to” Pyongyang’s weapons programs. This language builds on Resolution 1718 (2006), which required member states to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available” to persons involved in breaking sanctions.
Then, In March of 2013, one month before H.R. 1771 was introduced, the Treasury Department sanctioned the Foreign Trade Bank of the DPRK, a bank that was heavily involved in financing nominally legitimate trade, transactions with humanitarian NGOs, and also, according to the Treasury Department, “transactions on behalf of actors linked to its proliferation network.”
Like H.R. 1771, Treasury’s action and the Security Council’s language acknowledge that North Korea, like all money launderers, hides its illicit transactions within otherwise lawful commerce. It also uses the proceeds of that commerce to finance more illicit activities. Its objective is to make the lawful and the unlawful as indistinguishable and inseparable as possible. Like Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaeda, Pyongyang also shields its financial lifelines by entangling them with humanitarian activities—activities that are only necessary because of Pyongyang’s deliberate misuse of money that should be spent on food, and which it could easily disentangle from its proliferation by allowing humanitarian NGOs to bank elsewhere.
In practice, the targeting of some of these North Korean entities will require a careful, case-by-case weighing of costs and benefits based on good financial intelligence. That is why Section 207 of H.R. 1771 provides generous exemption and waiver provisions to avoid doing further harm to North Korea’s food supply, beyond the harm already being done by Kim Jong Un’s crackdown on market activities and cross-border smuggling.
I share more of Haggard’s concern that China will intensify its efforts to help Pyongyang evade sanctions:
One of the perverse effects of the post-2003 sanctions efforts is that North Korea has become increasingly dependent on China; my estimates with Marc Noland suggest that China may account for as much as 70 percent of the DPRK’s total trade. This growing dependence has had the odd consequence of reducing the influence of sanctions as trade has shifted toward the weakest links in the sanctions chain. China probably provides fewer direct supports than is commonly thought, but it remains strongly committed to a strategy of deep economic engagement with the country. It is possible that firms and particularly banks conducting business with North Korea will reconsider, and that is a good thing. But we should not have exaggerated expectations; there are plenty of firms and financial institutions that will continue to ply this trade, and we are unlikely to get much sympathy from Beijing in tracking them down. To the contrary, the Chinese government has already signaled its concern about the use of secondary sanctions and has shown little inclination to use the economic leverage over North Korea that it quite obviously has. Will this legislation make cooperation with China on North Korea easier or harder?
There’s little question that China will try to frustrate the enforcement of H.R. 1771, just as it has tried to frustrate the enforcement of every other effort to sanction North Korea. What distinguished the brief Banco Delta Asia episode from every other such effort, and contributed to its widely acknowledged success, was the Chinese government’s relative powerlessness to blunt it. Recent experience suggests that this hasn’t changed, although China’s willingness to sacrifice its own interests for Kim Jong Un’s may have waned since the purge of Jang Song-Thaek.
China’s adoption of state capitalism has enriched it, through the creation of businesses and parastatals that are highly dependent on global trade and the international financial system. It’s not surprising that a mixed economy has also had a mixed response to sanctions. At the state level, China routinely overlooks U.N.-mandated sanctions. China’s banks, on the other hand, have been highly sensitive to any veiled threat by Treasury to sanction banks that do business with North Korean money launderers and proliferators. We first saw this in 2005, shortly before Banco Delta Asia, when The Wall Street Journal reported that the Bank of China was under investigation for laundering North Korean funds. The report caused the Bank of China to spurn much of its North Korea business. Remarkably, even after Agreed Framework 2.0 in 2007, it still refused to help move $25 million in illegally derived funds back to Pyongyang, despite the express requests of the U.S. and Chinese governments.
As recently as May of 2013, two months after Treasury sanctioned the Foreign Trade bank and a little more than a week after the introduction of H.R. 1771, China’s four largest banks — the Bank of China, the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the China Construction Bank, and the Agricultural Bank of China — all halted money transfers to North Korea. Other, smaller Chinese banks, like the Bank of Dandong, continued to move money for Pyongyang, and at the lowest reaches of the financial ecosystem, North Korean money launderers still operate in Guangdong with impunity, and more discreetly, in places like the British Virgin Islands. Enforcing sanctions is like mowing the lawn. If you don’t do it regularly, things grow back quickly, and it’s the weeds that will thrive the most. Unlike mowing the lawn, you can’t take a uniform approach to different enforcement targets.
That is why H.R. 1771 was designed to be scaleable, allowing harder sanctions for smaller banks that the financial system wouldn’t miss, and more subtle sanctions for larger banks that have historically been highly sensitive to reputational risks. Securing compliance at all levels of the financial ecosystem will require a great deal of hard work by financial investigators and lawyers, and a new demonstration of Treasury’s determination to deter such conduct, both in China and in other countries.
Post-BDA, and since the ascent of Kim Jong-un in particular, North Korea has also sought to diversify its trade, investment and financial links. The KPA and its associates have developed relationships with financial entities that are not concerned with access to the U.S. market, both in China and outside it; Russia will be particularly interesting to watch in this regard but there is also the open field of the Middle East. Throughout, the legislation recognizes that the administration will need to conduct a vigorous diplomacy to close the loopholes created by the fact that some firms and financial institutions will not be deterred by secondary sanctions.
Without question, North Korea’s response to Banco Delta Asia has been to decentralize its hard currency operations overseas. Recently, North Korean senior defectors have provide some direct evidence of this to bolster the suspicions of the U.N. Panel of Experts. One obstacle to untangling this is the laxity of U.S. sanctions against North Korea, which do not require the licensing of most financial transactions like investments, loans, and other transfers. (See 31 C.F.R. 510.201, which bans proliferation-related transactions, imports from North Korea, and little else, and compare that to the corresponding breadth of the Iran and Cuba sanctions regulations). This deprives Treasury of valuable financial intelligence that could help it enforce a sanctions program more effectively, if the President ever directed it to do so.
Even so, it’s probable that North Korea still remains dependent on a relatively small number of key overseas financiers, abetted by a few unethical banks that are still willing to violate the intent of U.N. Security Council sanctions (by “relatively” small, I’m comparing my best guess to the hundreds of persons and entities designated by Treasury for financing Iran or various terrorist organizations; just 62 North Korean entities are designated today).
Of course, there’s nothing new about rogue regimes, terrorists, and drug lords hiding their money. With determined enforcement, it took Treasury three years to bring Iran’s relatively large, diverse, and interconnected economy to the brink of collapse, and about five to force Burma to free Aung San Suu Kyi. Bankrupting a terrorist organization with a low overhead was far more difficult, but within ten years, even Osama Bin Laden died bankrupt and isolated, cloistered with his wives and his extensive library of pornographic videos. There’s more overhead required to run a country with a population of 23 million and a million-man mechanized army, even if one runs it into the ground. This can’t be done with briefcases full of cash. Given Pyongyang’s relatively fragile links to the global economy — its chief exports are coal, meth, and refugees — one could realistically believe that sanctions would create significant leverage as quickly as they did in the case of Iran.
Without question, this will be harder today than it would have been if pursued with determination in 2007. But to suggest that the absence of a single weak link like Banco Delta Asia means that there are no others is to ignore the vulnerability of Pyongyang’s own banking system. One alternative would be to simply shut that system down entirely and force Pyongyang to work through responsible foreign banks, as Section 207(d) of H.R. 1771 contemplates. As Haggard says, correctly:
The outside world has a strong interest in encouraging reform and opening of the North Korean economy, to shift its strategic orientation away from the byungjin line of trying to pursue economic development and nuclear weapons simultaneously. If this legislation were to have the effect of encouraging deeper economic integration, it would be through an initial phase of even greater isolation, autarchy and external controls.
I agree with this, but I believe we’ve gotten the sequence wrong. Reform won’t be possible until North Korea accepts transparency and broad interaction with the outside world, and those prerequisites clearly don’t exist yet. The consequence of shutting down the North Korean banking system would be to force North Korea to rely on foreign banks. Responsible foreign banks that apply stringent transparency and compliance requirements on North Korea’s business transactions could extract some degree of financial transparency from Pyongyang — I’m suggesting something like receivership — that would force it to spend its money more wisely and humanely. Naturally, Pyongyang would never accept this until it was cornered directly over the trap door to Hell.
Another question is whether the sanctions will have the broader strategic effect of moving the North Koreans toward serious negotiation of its nuclear program. I am extremely dubious. Proponents of such sanctions point to BDA as a success in gradually bringing North Korea back to the table after its nuclear test in October 2006. But this assessment confuses a tactical move with the failure of the broader get-tough policy of the first Bush administration, which probably contributed to North Korea’s determination to go nuclear in 2006 in the first place. The incremental progress made during 2007-8 rested on the lifting of the BDA sanctions and extending offers of assistance as well.
This may be my only point of sharp disagreement with Haggard. The history suggests that Pyongyang began a determined pursuit of nuclear weapons in the late 1980s, continued that pursuit despite nuclear disarmament agreements with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and after Barack Obama asked Kim Jong Il to unclench his fist in 2009. Since then, North Korea has tested two more nukes and broken another disarmament deal. The revelation of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program is strong evidence of the continuity of North Korea’s intent. It also suggests that what happened in 2007 and 2008 was not progress at all, but the premature relaxation of pressure before North Korea’s disarmament was verified.
The point is a general one. The paradoxical feature of sanctions is that they rarely have the direct effect of forcing the target country to capitulate. The HR 1771 sanctions will have effect only when coupled with strong statements of a willingness to engage if North Korea showed signs of interest in doing so. The legislation provides plenty of sticks; the administration will have to continue to articulate the prospective carrots in a way that is credible. Strong sanctions legislation makes that difficult to do if the legislation places a series of binding constraints on the president’s discretion. Why negotiate with the U.S. if there is no return from doing so?
The experiences of 2007 and 2008 explain those binding constraints. If H.R. 1771 represents a vote of no confidence in the Obama Administration’s North Korea policy, sections 401 and 402 represent a vote of no confidence in the State Department, after its premature relaxation of sanctions against North Korea, Burma, and Iran. The United States has gotten good at using sanctions to gain diplomatic leverage. It has had a much poorer record of using that leverage to achieve its interests.
It’s fair to notice that Barack Obama wasn’t President in 2008. Is it also fair to constrain him over the actions of Bush’s State Department? I think it is, because the number of holdovers from one administration to another belies the essential continuity of both policies. Another long-standing sore point in Congress is its perception that the State Department has failed to enforce the North Korea Human Rights Act as intended. To a great extent, then, these sections not only express Congress’s distrust of North Korea, but its concerns that the State Department has abused its discretion and requires more limits. In future budgets, it wouldn’t surprise me to see this reflected in more fiscal limitations on how the State Department spends its appropriations.
Haggard is pessimistic that Kim Jong Un will ever give up his nuclear weapons voluntarily, and it’s a pessimism I share. It’s entire possible that only a coup or some kind of crisis will make effective diplomacy possible, but it will certainly require extraordinary leverage — leverage we don’t have today.
The longer North Korea refuses to disarm, the more assets and income streams Treasury will identify, block, and cut off. The loss of access to his offshore wealth will leave Kim Jong Un unable to sustain his own lifestyle, advance his WMD programs, pay his ruling elite, or feed his military and internal security forces. His mechanized military will degrade for lack of spare parts, fuel, and ammunition. The capabilities, discipline, and cohesion of his military and internal security forces will degrade until they are unable to suppress internal dissent. One beneficial effect of this would be to degrade the regime’s capacity to suppress markets, track cell phones, seal the borders, and block remittances and information from abroad. It’s possible that sanctioning the “palace” economy will help the gray-market people’s economy to flourish again.
In due course, these developments will also begin to destabilize the core of the regime. That may cause China to reassess its North Korea policy, enforce U.N. sanctions, and pressure Kim Jong Un to disarm diplomatically. Failing this, it may seek to euthanize the Kim Dynasty to preserve its greater interest in stability on the Korean Peninsula.
Alternatively, the regime’s financial isolation and political destabilization could cause other senior officials to prevail on Kim Jong Un to change his policies, or to remove him from power in favor of more rational leadership. The question today — so many years after our last good options evaporated — is which crisis we’d rather deal with. One is a North Korea with an effective nuclear arsenal, the willingness to proliferate it to others, a proven disregard for human life, and a dangerously impulsive leader. The other will require us to confront the tension attendant to fracking the Kim Dynasty into something we can deal with. Haggard and I will probably never give the same answers to that question, but he makes honest, objective, and compelling arguments about things policymakers must pay careful attention to as they implement a tougher new policy. In the end, however, one does not derive a clear sense of what strategy Haggard believes would be more likely to achieve our interests, which may explain his conscientious ambivalence about this legislation.
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Update: A reminder that the views I express here, including my inferences about the views of others, are mine alone.