Maximum pressure watch: North Korea, sanctions & diplomacy

The nature of human beings is to remember dramatic events longer than methodical processes, even when the methodical process may be of equal or greater importance. That may be why North Korea watchers remember the September 2005 action against Banco Delta Asia but tend to forget the greater part of the strategy that action served: sending Stuart Levey, Daniel Glaser, and other officials on a world tour to warn bankers and finance minister to cut their ties to Pyongyang or risk losing their access to the U.S. economy. It was not merely the stroke of one pen that brought Kim Jong-Il to the brink of insolvency; it was the stroke of a pen that put iron behind the velvet gloves that Levey and Glaser wore.

For months now, I’ve been watching for signs that the Trump administration would deploy such a strategy against Kim Jong-Un. The good news is that the signs of such an effort are now unmistakable. The bad news is that this effort is proceeding too slowly to deliver the necessary results in time. 

Starting in May, the President asked the leaders of the PhilippinesIndia (see also) and Vietnam to step up their enforcement of North Korea sanctions and cut their economic ties to Pyongyang. More recently, Ambassador Joseph Yun visited Malaysia, Singapore, and Burma to ask those governments to do likewise. Both Singapore and Malaysia have been havens for North Korean money laundering. Burma has long hosted North Korean arms dealers and been involved in suspicious arms-related deals with North Korea, including some involving nuclear technology. Yun’s message to Burma was that it should not expect the U.S. to restore full diplomatic relations until those dealings end.

Recently, the U.S. delivered a similar message to Sudan, another North Korean arms client. Otherwise, however, there is little evidence that the U.S. has pressured Namibia to shut down a North Korean arms factory, Angola to end its arms deals and use of slave labor, Egypt to expel its local KOMID representatives, or Tanzania to ensure that it cancels the registrations of North Korean ships.

Congress has also joined the effort by pressing Taiwan to cut its commercial ties in a provision of the new Taiwan Security Act. For an ostensible U.S. ally, Taiwan has been implicated in transferring sensitive technology to North Korea with disturbing frequency. For example, starting in 2009, the Treasury Department designated (and the U.N. Panel of Experts has repeatedly mentioned) a Taiwanese arms dealer and several of his companies for selling machine tools to North Korea. 

Last week, banking regulators in Latvia fined two banks for flunking their due diligence obligations to detect and prevent North Korean money laundering. Let’s hope that this is only the first of many similar moves by states to enforce the financial due diligence obligations found in paragraphs 11 through 16 of Resolution 2094, and in subsequent resolutions.

In 2016, while the Obama administration slept, South Korea’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Yun Byung-Se, also went on tour and secured commitments from multiple states to reduce their economic ties with North Korea. It should not surprise us that since the election of Moon Jae-In filled the Blue House with advisors with histories of addlebrained appeasement or alarming, even violent, pro-North Korean activism, the pace of Seoul’s diplomacy has dropped off to almost nothing. I’ve found evidence of one effort by Seoul in sympathy with this campaign, when Moon had a telephone call with the UAE’s Crown Prince, although it’s far from clear whether he asked the UAE for anything specific, such as sending North Korean slave laborers home. Diplomatically, one can hardly say that Seoul is an ally at all anymore. It barely suffers the burden of accepting a subsidized defense from North Korean missiles, courtesy of American taxpayers.

Tokyo, by contrast, has coalesced with us in much a more valuable way, by joining the U.S. in the collective enforcement of sanctions designations against businesses that deal with Pyongyang, and against the Bank of Dandong. That strategy, which I’ve referred to as “progressive diplomacy,” and which involves coalescing with our friends first, and approaching our enemies only after they’ve been isolated, will greatly multiply the power of each designation.

I’ve noted before that collectively, the U.S., Japan, and South Korea are China’s top three trading partners. I’ve sometimes wondered if that pressure would be even more effective if it took an analytical approach, akin to the Strategic Bombing Survey of World War II, that targets vulnerable or labor-intensive industries in cities such as Dandong and Dalian that trade with North Korea. There are some new tools in the KIMS Act that may be worth considering in the context of such a strategy. One that might be the most potentially devastating authorizes the President to target those cities’ ports.

If South Korea, Australia (see also), the U.K., and Europe were to join in this coalition, the diplomatic and financial pressure on Beijing and Pyongyang might be irresistible. Pyongyang sounds worried. For the long term, it should be. In the short term, however, promises by governments to enforce sanctions against North Korea sometimes mean less in practice than they do on paper, either because those governments backslide, or simply don’t understand what the sanctions require. It is helpful that the U.N. has finally published this summary of the sanctions. It would be more helpful if the U.N., the U.S., or the Financial Action Task Force would promulgate model legislation to ensure that states can easily enact legislation to enforce U.N. sanctions.

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But nothing would be more important in implementing the President’s new strategy than good management in the White House. One necessary step would be for the new Chief of Staff to seize control of the vetting and nominations for key cabinet posts from the political commissars and return that authority to the cabinet secretaries the President chose. Even a sound strategy will fail unless it’s executed competently. The diplomatic visits described in this post began in early May, and so far, the results they have produced are neither clear nor decisive. They have proceeded at too slow a pace to address a problem as urgent as this.

You won’t find a more strident critic than me of the thinking that has predominated in the State Department, particularly with regard to North Korea. But it is one thing to criticize an agency’s culture and the policies it continued to support long after their failure was manifest. It is another thing to destroy the agency itself. Good diplomacy will be an essential element of “maximum pressure.” That not only requires better direction from the White House, it also requires good diplomats. 

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WaPo editors ask, “What if sanctions don’t work?” … and answer correctly.

Regular readers know by now how many keystrokes I’ve spent at this site and in print in various places citing the evidence that sanctions against North Korea were largely a sham until last year, and could work if we enforced them in earnest. Still, the editors of the Washington Post ask a question that even the most strident sanctions advocate must consider:

ONE SCHOOL of North Korea experts has been arguing for some time that sanctions will never induce the isolated regime of Kim Jong Un to give up its nuclear weapons nor its race to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles that could carry them to the United States. A good answer is that while they might be right, sanctions are still the best available option — and unlike others, such as negotiations with the regime, they have never been given a robust try. Fortunately, that may be about to change.

I’d go the editors one better. The actions the Justice and Treasury departments began taking earlier this month are the kind of actions what will be necessary to break the link between North Korea and the financial system. We have yet to see the administration begin to impose the kinds of heavy penalties against larger, more connected banks that the Obama administration applied to banks like BNP Paribas in the Iran context, but DOJ has followed the money trail to the correspondent banks, which must be nervous about their compliance by now. There are hints that more is to come.

After waiting in vain for China to apply serious pressure to the Pyongyang regime following President Trump’s first meeting with Xi Jinping, the administration is readying sanctions against a number of Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea, a senior administration official said this week. A sanctions bill on its way through Congress mandates additional steps against North Korean shipping, countries that evade U.N. sanctions and those that employ the slave laborers whom the regime exports to other countries. Still-tougher measures are in a pending Senate bill developed by Maryland Democrat Chris Van Hollen.

Clearly, sanctions would work far better with Chinese enforcement than without. There is much the U.S. can do without Beijing’s cooperation to shut down Pyongyang’s finance. The new tools in the KIMS Act could vastly raise the pressure on its shipping, on shipping registries, insurers, and ports that fail to inspect North Korean cargo as UNSCR 2270 and 2321 require. There is much less we can do about what crosses the land border, however, and all of the evidence suggests that China isn’t simply negligent in its non-enforcement of sanctions against Pyongyang, but willfully weaponizing it.

If the administration aggressively and consistently exploits the new authorities — an open question, given the endless chaos in the White House and gaping personnel holes at the State Department — it might be able, over time, to cut off a substantial part of the flows of hard currency that last year allowed North Korea to increase its trade by nearly 5 percent and that financed $1.7 billion in imports from China in the first half of 2017.

Internationally, there are some encouraging signs that the Trump administration has undertaken and prioritized a campaign of diplomacy to break Pyongyang’s economic lifelines from countries other than China (breaking these links would increasingly isolate Bejing as an enabler of Pyongyang). The problem is that all of this will take time, and here, I think, is where the news is bleak:

The problem is a lack of time. Even successful sanctions campaigns, including that which induced Iran to bargain over its nuclear program, can take years to produce results — and the time North Korea may need to acquire the ability to threaten a nuclear attack on the U.S. homeland appears to be rapidly shrinking. The Post reported Tuesday that U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the Kim regime could produce a missile that could reach the U.S. homeland with an atomic warhead in a year, years faster than previously estimated. On Friday, the regime carried out a new test of what appeared to be a long-range ICBM, the second this month.

That is to say, sanctions typically take years to work, and President Trump’s predecessors wasted years that we no longer have. I think sanctions can work, and no evidence I’ve seen disturbs that belief yet, but there is no such thing as guaranteed success for any strategy, which means that every Plan A needs a Plan B, a Plan C, and a Plan D.

Not surprisingly, both the administration and outside experts are debating other options. CIA Director Mike Pompeo recently hinted at a strategy to “separate” the Kim regime from its weapons. If that means regime change, it would require far greater cooperation from a Chinese government that so far has been unwilling to seriously pressure its neighbor.

Here is the first point the Post makes with which I’ll express mild disagreement. But for all the reasons I explained here and here, there is no stable coexistence with a nuclear North Korea. The more Pyongyang perfects its nuclear arsenal, the more risks it will feel free to take, the more it will threaten our core interests, and the more likely war becomes. Brian Myers also argues what’s increasingly difficult to deny — Pyongyang says it seeks to reunify Korea under its control, it acts accordingly, and ultimately, it cannot survive as the poorer Korea. It means to use a nuclear arsenal to extort Seoul into disarmament and capitulation.

Some analysts suggest the United States should take up a Russian-Chinese proposal for a freeze on North Korean missile and nuclear tests in exchange for a halt to U.S.-South Korean military exercises. But history shows that any North Korean commitment to a freeze would be temporary and unreliable, while Washington’s agreement to the deal could introduce a permanent crack into its alliance with South Korea.

Here in America, some of us still fantasize about a deal Pyongyang says it doesn’t want and has no incentive to take. But the only talks Pyongyang is interested in now amount to a “peace process” to secure the lifting of sanctions, the unilateral disarmament of Seoul, the withdrawal of U.S. forces, and the assertion of de facto editorial and political control over South Korean society.

One helpful proposal comes from the State Department’s former human rights chief, Tom Malinowski, who wrote in a Politico essay that the United States should ramp up efforts to provide the North Korean people with information, including about the far freer and more prosperous lives of South Koreans. Political change in North Korea forced by its own citizens, he says, is more likely than denuclearization by the current regime. That clear-eyed but ultimately hopeful forecast strikes us as sensible.

As I discussed here. What the editors are effectively saying is that if Pyongyang won’t disarm diplomatically, our next-best option may be to induce the overthrow of the North Korean government. That’s right, and furthermore, it’s a threat to bring the one thing to China’s borders that Beijing fears more than anything else — instability. The advantage of this is that if the U.S. demonstrates a capacity to induce instability in North Korea, China will realize that its choices come down to a controlled demolition of the Kim Dynasty, an outbreak of violence and anarchy along its border, or wading into a messy counterinsurgency that will sap domestic political support for Xi Jinping’s rule. Beijing has been perfectly willing to support Pyongyang in threatening core American security interests. Why must we restrain ourselves from threatening Beijing’s interests in that case? Isn’t threatening the interests of hostile powers what deterrence is ultimately about?

We’ve now wasted decades on the fool’s errand of appeasing Pyongyang, and our chances of disarming it voluntarily, which are already low, diminish with each missile or nuclear test. The best outcome we can hope for now is that a coup d’etat removes His Porcine Majesty from the picture and devolves power to men who are willing to negotiate a grand bargain with us. For that bargain to achieve a real and lasting peace, it involves not only nuclear disarmament, the dismantlement of other WMD programs, and the removal of North Korean artillery from within 50 miles of the DMZ, but also fundamental humanitarian reforms without which verification of disarmament will never be possible. And, although there may be a brief transitional period for Pyongyang to remain a distinct political entity as it reforms gradually, in the end, the Korean crisis will only end when the Korean people themselves decide the time and manner for becoming a nation once again.

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After a near miss in the Senate, the KIMS Act heads for the President’s desk

While the rest of you talk about missiles, I’m going to talk about responses. Last night, by a vote of 98 to 2, the Senate passed H.R. 3364, a bill imposing new sanctions against Russia, Iran,* and North Korea. The bill previously passed the House by a vote of 419 to 3, and now goes to the President’s desk. The North Korea sanctions are contained in Title III, which previously passed the House as the KIMS Act by a vote of 419 to 1. Most of Title III’s key provisions amend and expand the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016.

Section 311 of the bill requires the President to freeze the assets of (and imposes other sanctions on) any person who —

  • “(10) buys gold, titanium ore, vanadium ore, copper, silver, nickel, zinc, or rare earth minerals from North Korea;
  • “(11) sells rocket, aviation, or jet fuel (except for use by a civilian passenger aircraft outside North Korea, exclusively for consumption during its flight to North Korea or its return flight);
  • “(12) facilitates a significant transaction or transactions to operate or maintain, a vessel or aircraft that is designated by the U.N. or the Treasury Department; 
  • “(13) facilitates the registration of, or maintains insurance or a registration for, a vessel owned or controlled by the Government of North Korea.

All of those provisions mirror U.N. sanctions from UNSCRs 2270 and 2321. This is implementing legislation of the kind that our diplomats are currently asking their counterparts in dozens of other countries to enact and enforce. Section 311 also authorizes discretionary sanctions against anyone who —

  • “(D) buys coal, iron, or iron ore from North Korea, in excess of the limitations provided in applicable United Nations Security Council resolutions;
  • “(E) buys textiles from North Korea;
  • “(F) facilitates a significant transfer of funds or property of the Government of North Korea that materially contributes to any violation of an applicable United Nations Security Council resolution;
  • “(G) transfers bulk cash, precious metals, gemstones, or other stores of value to or from North Korea;
  • “(H) sells crude oil, condensates, refined petroleum, other types of petroleum or petroleum byproducts, liquified natural gas, or other natural gas resources to North Korea (except for heavy fuel oil, gasoline, or diesel fuel for humanitarian use;
  • “(I) facilitates North Korea’s online commercial activities, including online gambling;
  • “(J) buys fishing rights from North Korea;
  • “(K) buys food or agricultural products from North Korea (whose people go hungry while Kim Jong-Un exports what they grow for hard currency);
  • “(L) facilitates the exportation of workers from North Korea;
  • “(M) engages in transactions involving North Korea’s transportation, mining, energy, or financial services industries;
  • “(N) facilitates the operation of any branch, subsidiary, or office of a North Korean financial institution.”

Some of those provisions (the coal cap) mirror U.N. sanctions, while others (food and textile exports) go beyond them. Other key provisions:

  • Section 314 imposes a potentially severe sanction on ports that don’t inspect North Korean cargo as required by UNSCR 2270, by authorizing enhanced customs inspections of shipments from those ports. Many shippers might prefer to ship through compliant ports instead of taking the risk that their merchandise might be held up in customs.
  • Section 315 imposes a sanction on shipping registries that reflag North Korean ships, in violation of UNSCR 2321. Ships flying those flags of convenience can be banned from U.S. waters. Shipping companies may well switch to other flags of convenience to avoid that consequence. That creates an incentive for registries to avoid North Korea’s business.
  • Section 321 allows the President to freeze the assets of companies that employ North Korean forced labor, and to sanction governments that permit the use of North Korean forced labor under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Goods made with North Korean labor or materials are presumed to be banned from the United States as products of forced labor, which may cause manufacturers to cleanse North Korean sources from their supply chains.

Most of the media attention is now on whether the President will veto the bill because of the Russia sanctions, but given the veto-proof margins by which it passed, it will probably become law sooner or later.

Before the Senate voted, there was also briefly a threat by Senator Corker to strip the North Korea sanctions out of the bill. Other than my own speculation, which I’ll keep to myself, I really don’t understand how the most popular part of this bill ended up becoming its most controversial part. I can’t credit the notion that “[n]ot a word of the North Korea bill” that the House passed by an overwhelming margin on May 4th “has been looked at” on the Senate side. It was also suggested that the Senate wanted a stronger bill, with resolution-of-disapproval language limiting the President’s authority to lift sanctions without Congress’s consent. But Congress previously wrote strict presidential certification conditions into the NKSPEA, and resolution-of-disapproval language may also be an unconstitutional legislative veto that would not be enforceable, and consequently, not worth fighting about. The only winners of an intra-partisan, inter-cameral fight are America’s enemies.

To the extent that the Senate would also like the House to vote on more of its legislation, that’s a perfectly reasonable request. For example, I hope (and believe) that the House will offer its strong support when Senator Van Hollen and Senator Toomey’s bipartisan BRINK Act comes up for a vote. The BRINK Act is easily the equal of either the NKSPEA or the KIMS Act in its toughness and sophistication, and I’m surprised that it hasn’t attracted the media attention it merits.

But it’s in the areas of human rights and freedom of information where the leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is now needed most. It will have another opportunity to set the agenda when the North Korea Human Rights Reauthorization Act comes up for a vote this year. A House version of that reauthorization finally made it through committee markup yesterday and now heads for the full House floor. If the Senate amends the House’s bill to add language similar to former Congressman Salmon’s DPRK Act, calling for the administration to step up its information operations in North Korea, I’m absolutely confident that the House would support it.

So, despite this near miss, there is good news in yesterday’s vote. Just as Congress built the legislative framework for Iran sanctions in several layers, it has now added a second layer to its North Korea sanctions, identifying and closing off Pyongyang’s sources of hard currency, loophole by loophole. The third layer, the BRINK Act, is ready when Congress is. So for all the talk of North Korean money launderers’ indefatigable cunning, swiftness, and flexibility, Congress has (however improbably) shown that it can act in a bipartisan way with even greater speed, sophistication, and adaptability than Pyongyang. The greater shock to Pyongyang may be that small knots of sophisticated amateurs and investigative journalists have exposed much of its money laundering network. It is now up to the administration to destroy it.

Here, we arrive at my greatest concern. Last year, when Congress passed the NKSPEA by similarly overwhelming margins, my concern (well founded, as it turned out) was that the President would slow-walk enforcement. This year, we have an administration that seems to have the will to use the legal tools Congress has given it, and those tools are nearly all in place. Now, my concern is that the administration lacks sufficient time and resources to execute the strategy. It has not put enough intel analysts, investigators, lawyers, and diplomats on the job of enforcing the new sanctions, and the political appointees who must direct and coordinate it aren’t in place. No strategy can succeed unless this presidency overcomes the bureaucratic anarchy that has consumed it thus far. Who sees that happening now? When a presidency fails, the country fails with it.

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* For those wondering why new Iran sanctions don’t violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, take a look at the Treasury Department’s F.A.Q. on this subject. The JCPOA does not affect sanctions on Iran for, among other things, its sponsorship of terrorism, its proliferation, or its support for the Assad regime or the Houthis in Yemen.

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

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

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

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

Introducing S.1591, the BRINK Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The KIMS Act becomes Title III of the RINKSA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What construction in Pyongyang tells us, and doesn’t tell us, about sanctions

As the Trump administration looks to sanctions, including secondary sanctions, to gain the leverage to disarm North Korea, it is natural that North Korea watchers would try to gauge the potential for sanctions to impact Pyongyang’s finances. In a place where predictions of glasnost go to die, it is natural that they would measure what the regime puts on display, like the development of Pyongyang’s skyline. And regrettably, it is natural that any analysis whose research begins and ends with news clippings that are half-wrong or half-read, and that betrays little understanding of the sanctions authorities or how their enforcement has evolved, will be of nearly no predictive value whatsoever.

So it is with this contribution by Henri Féron for 38 North, which suggests that sanctions can’t work in 2017 based on the failure of sanctions that either didn’t exist or weren’t enforced between 2014 and 2016. (An online bio for Féron describes him as a post-doctoral research scholar specializing in Korean language who has previously studied law in China — hardly the best place to gain a useful understanding of what the U.N. resolutions require — but hey, I went to law school in Nebraska and I do this as a hobby, so there’s that.) 38 North summarizes Féron’s argument thusly:

The construction boom in Pyongyang, along with other indicators of improved economic performance such as food production and foreign trade, provide further evidence of the ineffectiveness of current economic sanctions. The North Korean economy appears to be beating sanctions thanks to Chinese aid and trade, as well as the reallocation of conventional defense spending to the civilian economy.

There are several problems with this argument, starting with the fact that there is no general blockade of trade with North Korea and never has been. Féron argues that stable food prices (which have risen sharply recently, but that’s the subject of another post) suggest that sanctions have failed, despite the fact that all U.N. and U.S. sanctions exempt food imports. Féron writes, “[c]omparatively speaking, our most reliable indicators are food production and trade statistics.” I’ll just pause and give you a chance to stop laughing now.

Worse, citing U.N. World Food Program data, he writes, “North Korea is now more or less back to the nutritional self-sufficiency of the 1980s.” But earlier this year, UN aid agencies said that 70 percent of North Koreans were undernourished, and in 2015, they said that 80 percent of North Korean households had “poor” or “borderline” food consumption. The U.N. World Food Program, Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF, and the U.N. Development Programme all continue to assist North Korea. Self-sufficiency indeed!

Féron cites the recent decline in defections to imply that Kim Jong-Un’s regime is more popular, but the article he cites correctly notes that this is really a function of increased border security. Féron knocks down a straw-man “narrative of destitution” about Pyongyang, but there is general agreement that Kim Jong-Un has improved material standards of living for Pyongyang’s one percent (though elite defections continue to rise for other reasons). In North Korea, the destitution has always fallen on the victims of a unilateral class war Pyongyang wages against the “expendable” ones in the countryside and the provinces. 

~   ~   ~

But Féron’s Exhibit A is Pyongyang’s recent construction boom. At the outset, construction is a dubious metric for the effectiveness of sanctions. There are no U.N. or U.S. sanctions on construction materials or equipment and never have been. As Féron notes, North Korea has plenty of cement (he might have added that it has plenty of sand, gravel and building stone, too). As a Rimjing-gang guerrilla journalist documented in 2015, Pyongyang builds its buildings using army construction laborers working on starvation rations, without modern equipment, and under grossly unsafe working conditions. Pyongyang probably had to import lighting and plumbing fixtures, tiles, and floor coverings, but it probably didn’t need as much foreign capital for its new construction as appearances alone would suggest.

On the outside, the new construction looks great — the sort of “progress” that would look impressive from the window of a train passing a second-rate Chinese factory town. Indeed, the main purpose of this facelift appears to have been to show North Korean elites, potential investors, foreign journalists, and gullible op-ed writers that sanctions can’t stop Kim Jong-Un:

The project is intended to show “the spirit of the DPRK standing up and keeping up with the world, despite all sorts of sanctions and pressure by the U.S. imperialists and their followers,” and “the truth that the DPRK is able to be well-off in its own way and nothing is impossible for it to do,” state-media quoted Kim as saying when he ordered the beginning of construction in March. [CBS]

Still, images can be deceiving — especially in Pyongyang. In December 2015, the “completed” apartments on Mirae Scientists’ Street had no power, no running water, no heat, unfinished interiors, unsafe construction, and broken elevators that made the upper floors of the high-rise apartment buildings uninhabitable (imagine hauling your own water up 30 stories, to think nothing of what you might have to haul back down if the sewage system fails). It’s a similar story at another showpiece, Ryomyong Street (see also).

~   ~   ~

Could other sanctions provisions have applied to showpiece construction projects like Mirae Scientists’ Street and Ryomyong Street? Potentially. For example, there is evidence that other construction projects in Pyongyang, KKG Street and those revealed by this extraordinary new work of investigative journalism by Justin Rohrlich for NK News, had links to Bureau 39. Any dealings with Bureau 39 would be a clear sanctions violation today. Unfortunately, the world has been slow to designate Bureau 39, and even slower to enforce that designation. The U.N. didn’t designate Bureau 39 until March 2016, presumably because China blocked the designation until then. And even then, Treasury (to say nothing of the U.N., or China) would have hesitated to freeze any assets without a clear link between a particular construction project and a designated entity. A competent investigator with access to the right intelligence might find some link between a particular construction project and a sanctioned North Korean entity, but I don’t have that evidence, and Féron certainly doesn’t cite any.

Although much of the money for these building projects probably flowed through correspondent banks in New York, until very recently, U.S. sanctions were a case of trying to dam a river with a tennis net: in 2014, when Ri Jong-Ho was working for Bureau 39 in Dandong, there were just 43 North Korean entities designated (compared to 50 in Belarus and 161 in Zimbabwe) and (critically) no secondary sanctions — again, as I’ve been saying for years. The U.S. Treasury Department first designated Bureau 39 in 2010, five years after Treasury’s final rule about Banco Delta Asia detailed Bureau 39’s laundering of counterfeit currency. Treasury imposed some potentially broad sanctions under Executive Order 13687 in January of 2015, but has hardly used that authority to designate anyone. President Obama (reluctantly) signed the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act in February 2016. A ban on new investment in North Korea only came into effect in March 2016. Before any of the significant sanctions that might have halted it existed, tenants were already moving into Mirae Scientists’ Street. Dozens had probably moved out again.

The same is not true of Ryomong Street, which was only completed in the spring of this year. But as with Mirae Scientists’ Street, it isn’t clear what sanctions this would have violated without further investigation — investigation that no one was doing. I don’t see evidence of a clear link to Bureau 39 or another sanctioned entity in the open sources, and given how badly President Obama under-resourced the investigation of North Korea sanctions violations, he probably didn’t, either.

Simply designating “Bureau 39” by itself is meaningless. Bureau 39 doesn’t hold its bank accounts under “Bureau 39;” it hides them behind the names of front companies, shell companies, and various Chinese trading companies, co-conspirators, and patsies. With sufficient resources and talent, we could expose these companies and agents and freeze their assets. The work of the U.N. Panel of Experts, investigative journalists like Rohrlich and Mailey, and NGOs like C4ADS and Sayari Analytics has shown us how. But ask yourself: doesn’t it seem at all strange to you that the U.N., NGOs, and journalists keep exposing networks that our own government didn’t? If you’re a journalist or a congressional staffer, here’s a question you should ask the Treasury Department: how many full-time investigators and intel analysts are dedicated full-time to investigating North Korea?

If the necessary financing for Ryomyong Street wasn’t already done by 2016, President Obama might have tried to block those transactions as they flowed between Chinese commercial banks and U.S. correspondent banks, but as I’ve discussed ad infinitum here, Obama wasn’t willing to do that, except in one isolated case, well into the eleventh hour of his presidency. I could refer you to all of the pieces I’ve published documenting this policy of passive non-enforcement. I could do even better by citing Anthony Ruggiero’s exhaustively researched testimony for the House Financial Services Committee this week, or Dan De Luce’s real-time coverage of Obama throwing away his last chance to show some spine, or this, by Bill Powell for Newsweek, showing us how China abetted Pyongyang while Obama watched and did nothing:

A one-off case against a big Dandong-based holding company such as DHID is one thing. Beijing apparently didn’t protest too much when the Treasury issued its sanctions, apparently believing that it needs to show at least some willingness to pressure Pyongyang, even at the expense of one of China’s own firms. But several Trump appointees in the national security community are increasingly scathing about the efforts of both the Obama administration and Beijing to hobble Kim’s nukes. “As the North continued to make progress [toward an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuke], the U.S. and the U.N. tightened sanctions, it’s true,” says one Trump official. “But those were sanctions with a big caveat: They didn’t much apply to China, at least when China wanted to ignore them.” Another Trump official says the Obama team was focused on climate change as the key issue in bilateral relations with Beijing—not North Korea. “At no point was the sanctions regime against North Korea as effective as the sanctions were against Iran before they came to the [nuclear negotiating table],” says one senior Trump official, “and that’s almost entirely because of China.” [Newsweek]

President Trump took the Oath of Office in January. Then, he ordered a policy review that took four months, met with Xi Jinping in April, and gave him two more months before tweeting that China wasn’t helping. Around that time, the tenants of Ryomyong Street were first climbing the stairs to their new 50th-story lofts. In July, the Trump administration finally started targeting Pyongyang’s finances in earnest, including its use of Chinese banks to evade U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Even this is only a beginning of what will be necessary to how visible effects on the palace economy, which will likely take at least a year to show. 

The lessons being: first, even the best 2017 sanctions can’t stop 2016 construction; second, one cannot measure the effect of sanctions through non-sanctioned commerce; and third, when offering expert analysis on any topic, there’s no substitute for some careful research. Féron is right that sanctions failed to prevent Kim Jong-Un from slapping up a lot of spiffy-looking buildings in Pyongyang, most of which did not immediately fall down. But in the end, that may not tell us much about the potential for aggressively enforced, well-targeted sanctions to present Pyongyang with some very hard choices.

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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

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

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We cannot live with a nuclear North Korea (or rather, it will not live with us)

Yesterday, the North Korean threat finally crossed the ocean to our shores. As it is after every fresh outrage from Pyongyang, the question many will ask is, “Now what?” Certainly, there are plenty of legal, financial, and diplomatic options on this list that President Trump’s cabinet can exercise. Congress is also ready to act, or nearly so. You should expect to see the Senate move legislation you’ve seen (or something similar to it) and legislation you have not yet seen. That is good, but is there still time? After years of indecision and neglect, it will take concerted diplomatic and law-enforcement efforts for financial pressure to show its effects on Pyongyang, and no pressure that fails to threaten the very end of Kim Jong-Un’s misrule will be sufficient.

As you read this, “experts” across Northwest D.C., including some of those who are most responsible for getting us into this mess in the first place, are proof-reading their next op-eds calling for us to beg for a deal that Pyongyang doesn’t want and wouldn’t keep. As Pyongyang has said repeatedly (though too many of us choose not to hear it) it will not negotiate away its nuclear arsenal. A freeze would only trade away valuable concessions until Pyongyang seizes on the slightest pretext to renege on it.  Those who tell us that we must talk to North Korea ignore the evidence of how often we have tried. Indeed, it is they who aren’t listening to North Korea. These people are deluding everyone — most of all themselves. Pyongyang did not starve millions of “expendable” people to build a nuclear arsenal so that it could trade that arsenal away. Kim Jong-Un does not want nuclear weapons merely to defend himself from us. He will use them to blackmail Seoul into a “peace process” that would achieve the incremental surrender of South Korea and ultimately, the legacy to which his father and grandfather devoted their lives — the reunification of Korea under his rule. I believe he now sees that goal as within his reach. He may be right.

Can we learn to live with a nuclear North Korea that sold missile technology to Iran, built a nuclear reactor in a part of Syria now controlled by ISIS, and threatened to sell nuclear weapons to terrorists? That attacked our South Korean treaty ally or U.S. forces stationed in Korea in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1976, 1983, 1987, 1998, 2002, 2010, and 2015, killing 50 South Koreans in 2010 alone? That sends assassins to murder human rights activists and dissidents in exile? That has launched cyberattacks against banks, newspapers, nuclear power plants, and the Seoul subway? That launched another cyberattack against a Hollywood movie studio, made terrorist threats against movie theaters in the United States, and chilled the freedom of expression that Americans cherish and have given their lives for? That murdered the half-brother of its tyrant with a deadly nerve agent, in a crowded airport terminal, in the capital city of a friendly nation, 5,000 miles away? That may already be able to strike the United States with a nuclear weapon? The very idea is madness. One day, Kim Jong-Un, whose tolerance for risk always exceeds the calculations of our “expert” class, will go further than we are prepared to tolerate. Down this path lies war — a war whose potential will grow more destructive with each passing year.

Any fool who can hear the rising roar and see the boiling cloud of mist ahead knows where this current is carrying us. We cannot live with a nuclear North Korea if it means — as it assuredly does — the end of nonproliferation and the beginning of an age in which nuclear, chemical, biological, and cyber-terrorism will cease to be theoretical and become imminent and frequent. Fundamentally, the question isn’t really whether we can live with a nuclear North Korea, but whether a nuclear North Korea so inculcated with hatred of America, and with contempt for our open and democratic society, would live with us.

For now, I doubt we’ll make much progress with Russia or China at the U.N., though I think we should give it a token try. One additional provision that’s now worth asking for is an air and sea blockade in which only imports of food, non-luxury consumer goods, and humanitarian supplies should go through. But China and Russia would not agree to this, and I increasingly incline toward not wasting our political capital there. Instead, we should re-focus our diplomatic energy on progressive diplomacy to build a coalition outside of the U.N. to enforce existing U.N. sanctions and deny the North Korean regime the funds that sustain it. But is there still time? And more importantly, don’t Pyongyang’s escalations call for a reassessment of what sanctions are meant to achieve, and therefore the targeting strategy?

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

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

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

[Alderaan shot first.]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So noted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How to hold North Korea accountable for Otto Warmbier’s death

In North Korean prisons (at least, in those from which release is possible at all) when the guards conclude that a prisoner is about to die, they release her and send her away to die at home, so that disposing of her body will be someone else’s problem, and so that the warden can manipulate the camp’s rate of in-custody deaths downward. (Perhaps in some small way, even the wardens of North Korean prisons fear being held accountable, one day, for what they do.) The same is true when North Korean officers conclude that a soldier is about to die of starvation or tuberculosis — the army will send the soldier home to die.

So it was when North Korean diplomats at the U.N. reached out to their American counterparts to inform them that they had an American patient to dump. That the Warmbiers were able to see and touch their son one last time before he died was merely incidental to Pyongyang’s true purpose. It reminds us that Pyongyang has the means to talk to us when it decides that it’s in its interest to do so. Above all, Otto Warmbier’s death should remind us that governments that murder their own people will eventually murder ours. Pyongyang has made the hatred of Americans a national virtue. It indoctrinates its little children to hate and kill us. All that prevents it from murdering us on a greater scale is that it still lacks the means to do so.

An autopsy should now be done to determine the precise cause of Mr. Warmbier’s death, to rule out Pyongyang’s explanations of botulism or a drug reaction. Even if this explanation turns out to be plausible, however, it would not excuse holding Mr. Warmbier in Pyongyang in a coma for a year and denying him access to medical care that might have saved him. The coroner should look for evidence of what event put Warmbier into a coma to begin with, whether it was a beating, a suicide attempt, or some other cause. If prompt medical attention might have saved his life, a willful decision to deny him life-saving care would still be murder. And here, the chronology supplies circumstantial evidence of a political motive, and thus, a darker explanation:

  • Jan. 2: North Korea arrests Otto Warmbier.
  • Jan. 6: North Korea carries out a nuclear test, an event that took weeks of preparation. International condemnation follows; the U.S. calls the U.N. Security Council into emergency session.
  • Jan. 12: North Korea arrests a second U.S. citizen, Kim Dong-Chul, a humanitarian aid worker from Fairfax, Virginia.
  • Jan. 22: North Korea reveals Warmbier’s arrest publicly for the first time.
  • Feb. 5: The House introduces H.R. 757, a North Korea sanctions bill. It advances quickly through Committee to the House floor, where it passes by 418 to 2.
  • Feb. 10: The Senate passes H.R. 757 by a vote of 96 to 0.
  • Feb. 18: The President signs H.R. 757 into law.
  • Mar. 2: The U.N. Security Council approves new sanctions in Resolution 2270.
  • Mar. 15: President Obama signs Executive Order 17722, implementing the sanctions in H.R. 757.
  • Mar. 16: North Korea holds a show trial for Otto Warmbier and sentences him to 15 years’ hard labor.

In retrospect, then, Pyongyang’s “arrests” of both Otto Warmbier and Kim Dong-Chul appear to have been part of its coordinated plan to test a nuke, and to blunt a U.S. push to sanction it for doing so. It was at this point, shortly after Warmbier’s show trial, that something put him into a coma. This was when Pyongyang had the greatest motive to use Warmbier to punish the U.S. government. (North Korea’s dogma is one of collective rights and collective punishment. It does not recognize the individual as separate from the state. It would be consistent with Pyongyang’s dogma to punish one American to punish the U.S. government.) This was also when North Korea had a political disincentive against sending Warmbier home, lest it show the world a less defiant face or give up the leverage of holding one more American hostage. Shortly before Otto Warmbier passed away, the North Koreans doubled down and said that he got what he deserved.

President Trump reacted to Otto Warmbier’s passing appropriately:

Ambassador Haley said it best, however:

But it is with regard to Secretary of State Tillerson’s reaction where I might offer some help:

Presumably, they’re having a good laugh about this in Pyongyang, where crime always pays and there are never consequences. Pyongyang has been getting away with murder for 70 years; why should it be different this time when it still has three American hostages? Perhaps, at some point, the U.S. government will cease to allow Pyongyang to benefit from this tactic. It is not legally terrorism, because it is not carried out by clandestine agents or subnational groups, but it is a use of violence against innocent non-combatants with the apparent intent to influence the conduct of our government. Of course, Pyongyang has done many other things recently that do fit the legal definition of terrorism, so re-listing North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism would be both well-justified and appropriate. (If you still haven’t read my 100-page, peer-reviewed legal analysis of the evidence, then by all means, feel free to do so now.)

The question of a travel ban will invariably be raised again. Even without legislation, the President has the authority to restrict U.S. passports to prevent them from being used by U.S. citizens and permanent residents to visit North Korea, but such a limited ban would be difficult to enforce in practice — it’s not as if the North Koreans would cooperate by turning paying hostages away just because the State Department wants them to. For reasons I’ve explained before, the President would need legislation to make a travel ban truly effective. The way to do this is to block the North Korean tourist industry’s access to the dollar system entirely. That would have the benefit of making the U.S. designation of Air Koryo more effective by closing a key legal loophole. (Air Koryo has been implicated repeatedly in the smuggling of WMD components and luxury goods, in violation of U.N. sanctions.)

An even more effective ban would include secondary immigration sanctions, by denying recent visitors to North Korea visa-free entry into the United States (section 4, below the fold). That would render North Korea’s recent investments in a ski resort, a water park, and a new airport terminal largely worthless. Yes, journalists, I wrote in a special exemption just for you — you’re welcome.

Don’t get me wrong; I’d be all for passing H.R. 2732 now. I also recognize that Congress is politically hesitant about travel bans for various reasons. The problem is that Pyongyang’s hostage-taking is now endangering other Americans, and the citizens of other countries, by interfering with the execution of a more coherent North Korea policy. In the interests of making the perfect the enemy of the good, then, I offer a text below the fold, of a travel ban that’s conditioned on the President certifying that it’s safe for Americans to travel to North Korea, and that also maximizes the effect of a ban on tourist and commercial travel to North Korea by non-U.S. citizens that is paid for in U.S. dollars. By linking the ban to the release of U.S. hostages, it gives Pyongyang a powerful financial incentive to set them free.

Finally, it’s long past time for the Senate to take up Chairman Royce’s bill, the KIMS Act, to further toughen existing sanctions on Pyongyang. That bill passed the full House 419 to 1 weeks ago. The Senate has yet to introduce it.

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

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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

   (a) The following are prohibited:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

Update: At the Washington Post, Anna Fifield adds:

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

[….]

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

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

[….]

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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China is cheating on the North Korea coal import ban (again) (with updates)

Via the indispensable Leo Byrne:

Two North Korea-linked ships have arrived at two separate coal terminals in Shanghai since Sunday, while one other was departing the area after having left a third facility at a similar time.

Satellite imagery shows that each of the terminals is equipped to handle coal. The UN currently restricts member states from importing North Korean coal, while Beijing has said numerous times that it has suspended all imports for the remainder of 2017.

“Imagery indicates these sites are primarily used for coal unloading. Some of the larger port areas are multi-use, but the specific berths that the ships were tracked to appear to primarily handle bulk coal,” Scott LaFoy, a Washington-based satellite imagery analyst, told NK Pro. [NK Pro]

As Byrne notes, this isn’t the first time in recent months China has been caught breaking its promise to stop importing North Korean coal this year. In addition to this, in 2016, China imported twice as much coal as permitted under a U.N. import cap. Much of North Korea’s coal trade is controlled by the North Korean military, or its external spy/terrorist/hacker agency, the Reconnaissance General Bureau.

China’s failure to identify the North Korean links to the ships is, at a bare minimum, negligent. For example, one of the ships, the Pu Hung 1, is controlled by Rungrado General Trading Corporation, which deals in various goods and services including slave labor, which had been mentioned in U.N. Panel of Expert reports for proliferation, and which the Treasury Department designated in December.

Byrne links two other ships to one Hiroshi Kasatsugu. You can read about Mr. Kasatsugu’s links to Mirae Shipping, a front for U.N.- and U.S.-designated Ocean Maritime Management Company, in paragraphs 143 through 148 of the 2015 report of the U.N. Panel of Experts.

One of the ships that recently arrived in a Chinese coal terminal, and which is linked to Mr. Kasatsugu, was later sold to a front for none other than Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, or DHID. DHID is under indictment in a U.S. federal court in New Jersey for money laundering, conspiracy, and sanctions violations on behalf of North Korea.

China is obligated to expel representatives of U.N.-designated entities, including Ocean Maritime Management, which the U.N. designated in 2014, yet Mr. Kasatsugu apparently continues to operate there. Not that this should surprise us, given how many members of North Korea’s proliferation network operate openly in China.

Brian Moore said it best:

I’ve come to the conclusion that official Chinese trade statistics are to certain journalists and economists what pro wrestling is to certain 10-year-old boys. So for this round, it’s NK News 1, Yonhap -1.

Mark your calendars for July 15th, everyone.

~   ~   ~

Updates:

It’s an oversight on my part that this post didn’t also work in Byrne’s reporting on other Chinese businesses helping North Korea register ships associated with its smuggling fleet. UNSCR 2321, paragraph 24 requires U.N. members states to “de-register any vessel that is owned, controlled, or operated by the DPRK.”

Expect to hear much more about this topic soon, from another source.

China is also increasing imports of North Korean iron ore. Under paragraph 26(c) of UNSCR 2321, the U.N. banned imports of North Korean iron ore except for “livelihood” purposes unrelated to its WMD programs — whatever that means in Chinese.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~   ~   ~

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

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

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What the Chinpo Decision doesn’t mean for the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions

Since the High Court of Singapore reversed part of the conviction of Chinpo Shipping for its role in financing the 2013 Chong Chon Gang arms shipment just over two weeks ago, and despite the crush of other (still unfinished) commitments that have eaten up my blogging time, I’ve wanted to set a few minutes aside to post some thoughts on the decision. (If you haven’t already looked up “chinpo” at Urban Dictionary, you really shouldn’t.)

Let’s start with what the decision wasn’t: a persuasive precedent for a narrow reading of U.N. sanctions:

May 2017: judicial reasoning in the Chinpo Shipping case found that the correct interpretation of UN sanctions against the DPRK is narrower than is often supposed, suggesting that even if current UN sanctions were to be implemented fully by all countries, a lot of trade with the DPRK could still continue lawfully; [Tristan Webb, NK Pro]

Contra Webb’s long-winded and thinly veiled celebration of the decision as a defeat for Donald Trump, “maximum pressure,” and U.N. sanctions, this decision turns out to have been much less than that. Rather, it was a flawed decision interpreting a badly written regulation that was two resolutions out of date at the time, and would be four resolutions out of date now had Singapore not already replaced it with a newer and tougher regulation that would likely have avoided the High Court’s embarrassing decision entirely. This decision is unlikely to be precedent in Singapore, much less in other countries.

The decision should, however, embarrass the 1718 Committee into carrying out its responsibility to “circulate a comprehensive compilation” of the Security Council’s North Korea sanctions (see paragraph 44), and spur the U.S. to lead a global effort to draft model sanctions legislation through the UNSCR 1540 process, the Proliferation Security Initiative, or the Financial Action Task Force.

This is my conclusion after having taken the extreme step of actually reading the decision, which I had to do for someone else on Saturday morning anyway, as one of those commitments I mentioned. (Special thanks here to Andrea Berger for posting it and helping me find it. Read her post, too.) Although I’m not a Singaporean lawyer, the laws of Singapore and the United States both descend from the English legal tradition, and to an American lawyer, the concepts will seem familiar.

Lost amid the commentary is that fact that the latter part of the High Court’s decision affirmed Chinpo’s conviction and fine for breaking the Money Changing and Remittance Business Act, by remitting more than $40 million for various North Korean entities through its Bank of China account without a license. As the High Court made clear, those remittances went well beyond the volume of Chinpo’s nominal shipping business, and Chinpo was really acting as a shadow bank. (That the Bank of China’s lawyers aren’t combing through terabytes of information right now, in response to Treasury Department subpoenas about flagrant Know-Your-Customer violations and possible money laundering, may be the greatest crime of all.)

The High Court reversed the portion of Chinpo’s conviction for violating the Singapore’s circa-2010 regulation implementing the U.N.’s North Korea sanctions, because the prosecution failed to prove that Chinpo had reason to know that its remittances directly benefited North Korea’s nuclear program. That part of the result is both absurd and partially understandable. It’s absurd because the U.N. sanctions themselves required no such standards of proof in 2013, when they occurred. The Chinpo wire transfers financed the smuggling of weapons, in violation of an arms embargo in effect against North Korea under resolutions 1718 (paragraph 8) and 1874 (paragraphs 9 and 10). Now, here is what the Singaporean prosecutors had to work with in 2013 — a poorly drafted, ridiculously outdated, and incomplete rule:

12.  No person in Singapore and no citizen of Singapore outside Singapore shall —

(a) provide any financial services; or

(b) transfer financial assets or resources, or other assets or resources,

that may reasonably be used to contribute to the nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related, or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Yes, that’s it. Not only does the regulation fail completely to prohibit financing of North Korea’s arms trade, it fails to incorporate the UNSCR 1718 arms embargo at all. There’s just no excuse for an advanced nation to have failed in this way, given that the embargo has been in effect since 2006. Which is why the decision was also partially understandable; after all, the court couldn’t very well allow Chinpo to be convicted for something the law didn’t yet prohibit. This is not to excuse the High Court’s ridiculously narrow reading of the regulation, and (given the nature of North Korea) the insurmountable evidentiary burdens the court applied to what was meant to be a due diligence obligation. 

So what we have here is a flawed decision based on a poorly drafted, outdated, and now-superseded regulation by a government that likely didn’t want to interfere too much with Singapore’s lucrative commercial ties to North Korea or offend Chinese interests. No doubt, after the Panel of Experts traced the Chong Chon Gang money trail back to Singapore, some Grand Poobah in the Singapore government told the prosecutors to charge Chinpo with something. That poorly drafted regulation is all the prosecutors really had. (Another serious, if more forgivable, error is that by the time of the Chong Chon Gang seizure, UNSCR 2087 and UNSCR 2094, with its much more stringent financial provisions — see paragraphs 10-16 — had been in effect for five months, but Singapore still hadn’t updated its regulation.)

Still, if this sort of thing can happen in a modern, advanced, rule-bound place like Singapore, why should we expect better results from Indonesia, Tanzania, or Angola?  The U.N. Security Council has now passed seven lengthy, often impenetrably worded, and overlapping resolutions strung together with confusing cross-references. It’s time to help the states with the lowest capacity to enforce those resolutions understand, translate, codify, enact, and enforce them. Model legislation is an essential first step, and only the U.S. can really lead that effort.

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Our grand plans to engage North Korea must learn from their failures and evolve with the evidence

One of my cruel habits lately has been to ask the holdouts who still advocate the economic, cultural, and scientific “engagement” of Pyongyang to name a single significant, positive outcome their policies have purchased at the cost of $8 billion or more, over 20-odd years, as thousands of North Koreans died beyond our view and our earshot. I’ve yet to receive a non-sarcastic answer to that question. Yesterday, I salted this wound by pointing out that the largest remaining engagement experiment, the Pyongyang University of Science and Technology, has become a pool for hostages for Kim Jong-un, exactly as the Malaysian Embassy in Pyongyang recently was, and exactly as the Kaesong Industrial Complex will be if Moon Jae-in is foolish enough to reopen it — and if we’re foolish enough to let him draw us into this potential flashpoint for conflict (think Desert One with nukes).

It is now beyond serious debate that the Sunshine Policy (and every rebranded variation of it) has failed, and that it will never succeed as long as Kim Jong-un weighs down a throne in Pyongyang. Engagers will answer that it is essential to keep open lines of communication to prevent war. Fine, but such communications are best left to diplomats who can meet their North Korean counterparts in safe, neutral locations, not to anyone addlebrained enough to visit or take up residence in North Korea in times like these.

Engagers will also argue that North Korea will never change if North Koreans aren’t exposed to better ideas and ways of life. But if you were to interrogate the engagers and me, you’d find that I believe this point more strongly than the engagers themselves do. We differ in their belief, and my skepticism, that Pyongyang-approved engagement programs have the potential to catalyze positive change from the top down. Rather, it’s the smuggling and broadcasting of media that Pyongyang is waging an unrelenting war to suppress that have the proven potential to change North Korea from the bottom up, and for the better. Remember 2012, when the engagers figured Kim Jong-un for a Swiss-educated reformer? Instead, his signature domestic policy has been a counterinsurgency campaign — a violent war by his regime against an unorganized popular uprising. Except that in this war, only one side is organized and armed, and consequently, the other side has done all of the dying.

~   ~   ~

The evidence that has accumulated over 20 years yields no basis — none — to believe that we will see a kinder, gentler Kim Jong-un if we just throw enough money at him. Indeed, the legacy of the Sunshine Policy is far worse than its mere failure to succeed. It has also set back the cause of reform, opening, and change by financing the machinery of oppression and terror (of both the domestic and foreign varieties) that guards the status quo.

Several years ago, for example, I linked to reports that the dreaded State Security Department finances its salaries and expenses through a China-based trading company. Since then, the Treasury Department has designated three North Korean trading companies that sell coal and iron ore — Daewon Industries, which supports the Munitions Industry Department; the Kangbong Trading Corporation, which supports North Korea’s military; and Paeksol Trading Corporation, which supports the Reconnaissance General Bureau, the spy agency that carries out most of North Korea’s terrorist and cyber attacks. To these, the Wall Street Journal‘s Jay Solomon adds another example, involved in financing North Korea’s nuclear programs.

From this evidence, it follows that we would do more to disarm and transform North Korea by targeting those companies with sanctions and bankrupting them, and by forcing the soldiers and cadres that rely on their revenue to turn to corruption, than by financing them. If we’re serious about bringing change to North Korea, our sanctions policy should preferentially target North Korea’s security forces and border guards as much as it targets its proliferation network. That’s the part of “maximum pressure” the Trump administration gets.

The even greater potential source of pressure, which the Trump administration may or may not understand, is to employ an engagement strategy that seeks to reach the North Korea people directly, using technology to bypass Pyongyang’s minders and censors. The people of North Korea are looking for that bypass from within:

Amid heightened levels of surveillance and border control, an increasing number of North Koreans in the border areas are purchasing South Korean smartphone, which they perceive as more secure from detection by the authorities.
“Most smugglers own mobile phones that enable them to communicate across the border, but recently an increasing number of residents are looking for South Korean touch-phones (smartphones). There are rumors that the South Korean phones are not as easily detectable by the devices used by the security agencies,” a source in North Hamgyong Province told Daily NK on May 1.
“Some say that residents with South Korean smartphones are able to send texts and pictures more quickly and evade detection. For this reason, individuals are paying large sums of money to smugglers for South Korean phones.” [Daily NK]

An engagement strategy that goes directly to the North Korean people has far more potential to achieve cultural, social, and political change than another rebranded variation of Sunshine. It would follow the plan I’ve written about at length and described as “guerrilla engagement” — one that directly engages North Korea’s discontented by harnessing the jangmadang economy and North Koreans’ hunger for information about the outside world. It would use entertainment and practical information (weather and market reports) as gateway drugs for those who might later opt to listen to overtly religious and political content. An essential reagent for the second phase of that strategy will be deploying the technology that not only allows North Koreans to hear our messages, but also to communicate and organize with each other. In time, it would organize and coalesce their grievances into a broad-based popular resistance movement with the capacity to broadcast photographs and video of the regime’s human rights abuses, stage strikes, deny the regime control of the market economy, and further strain the regime’s finances.

~   ~   ~

True, the election of Moon Jae-in threatens to reanimate the old, failed approach to engagement, though without much of a popular mandate. In due course, a revival of Sunshine will collapse under the weight of Kim Jong-un’s predatory and impulsive nature, just as Kim Jong-Il’s conduct eventually discredited Roh Moo-hyun’s policy. Until then, neutralizing South Korean opposition to “maximum pressure” will require us to bargain harder with Seoul that George W. Bush or Barack Obama ever did. Moon’s election may require us to find information strategies that circumvent his obstructionism by relying on our own technological innovation, and perhaps by shifting toward a closer operational partnership with Japan.

We tend to forget that until just over a year ago, engagement and sanctions worked at cross purposes — effectively, sanctions and subsidies were mutually canceling. But consider the potential of those two strategies if we ever coordinated them. It is one thing to bankrupt the border guards, but entirely another to do so while helping smugglers bribe or evade them. It is one thing to bankrupt the security forces, but entirely another to do so while helping clandestine journalists show their abuses to the world. It is one thing to bankrupt the military’s commissary system, but entirely another to do so while empowering clandestine humanitarian NGOs to minister to, and provide for the material needs of, demoralized, hungry, and mistreated soldiers. If the Sunshine experiment was allowed so many years to double and triple down on failure, might we at least experiment with an engagement strategy designed to shift North Korea’s internal balance of power, gradually enough so that Kim Jong-un never faces the dangerous use-it-or-lose-it proposition that our loose talk of “decapitation” raises?

Engagers will say this means regime change, and it’s certainly some kind of change, but a kind that looks less like Iraq than the unkept promises of glasnost and perestroika we heard from the engagers themselves 20 years ago. As Professor Lee, Bruce Klingner and I pointed out in the pages of Foreign Affairs recently:

The failure of engagement was just as inevitable as the failure of the Agreed Framework. Its premise—that capitalism would spur liberalism in a despotic state—was flawed. After all, over the past two decades, both China and Russia have cracked down on domestic dissent and threatened the United States and its allies abroad, even as they have cautiously welcomed in capitalism. In 2003, even as it cashed Seoul’s checks, Pyongyang warned party officials in the state newspaper that “it is the imperialist’s old trick to carry out ideological and cultural infiltration prior to their launching of an aggression openly.” For the regime, engagement was a “silent, crafty and villainous method of aggression, intervention and domination.” Given this attitude, it’s no surprise that Kim Jong Il never opened up North Korea. The political change that engagement advocates promised was exactly what he feared the most.

That is to say, the Sunshine Policy could never work because it was a strategy for regime change that depended on the very people with the most to lose if it succeeded — the ruling class in Pyongyang. (Either that, or Sunshine was really a marketing strategy for overcoming U.S. objections to subsidizing Pyongyang and canceling out the effect of sanctions by clothing it as regime change. In which case, it succeeded brilliantly.)

Taking the aims of Sunshine at face value, however, its manifest failure calls for a complete rethinking. Engagement must appeal, first, to the people who seek change, rather than those who resist it. The information component of this strategy must be tailored to different constituencies — soldiers, the elites, and of course, the poor who are trapped at the bottom of the songbun scale. By engaging the North Korean people directly, we can help expand the private farming and trading that fill the markets. We can broaden the cracks in Kim Jong-un’s blockade to expand the freedom of information that really can bring social and political change. We can slow the pace of proliferation and relax the grip of the state’s oppression on the people. We can hasten the erosion of belief in Kim Jong-un’s personality cult, promote peace, and help prevent (or shorten) a war.

We will also need a separate strategy to engage the elites in Pyongyang, to persuade them not to resist change, to abstain from crimes against humanity, and to refuse (as much as they are able) to attack civilian targets in South Korea. This must be an appeal to the interests of the men with the guns. We should seek to undermine their confidence in Kim Jong-un and convince them that they have a better and safer future in a reunified Korea. That may require the difficult choice to offer some form of clemency to those who have taken innocent life, but only if they save innocent North or South Korean lives at critical moments. We must speak to them with candor about the recent purges in Pyongyang — how the status quo eventually means physical obliteration for them and a slow death in the prison camps for their families. If we employ these strategies in tandem, the elites will realize that time is not on their side, and that their reward for preserving Kim Jong-un’s reign will be physical extinction for themselves, a bleak future for their families, and a legacy on the ash-heap of history.

No pressure can ever be “maximum” if it excludes this reinvented, disruptive new approach to engagement.

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Former Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen on N. Korea, China, and secondary sanctions

A recurring theme in the North Korea sanctions debate is that most of those who really understand what our sanctions on North Korea do and don’t do, and how they work, think they can work against North Korea, if we ever bother to enforce them (see, e.g., Juan ZarateAnthony Ruggiero, Peter Harrell, George A. Lopez, and Bill Newcomb). Unfortunately, the actual experts are at variance with another group, consisting mostly of academics, retired politicians, retired diplomats, and experts in other fields, who say that sanctions either won’t work, or aren’t an alternative to a deal Kim Jong-un doesn’t even want. What most of these people have in common is a lack of any significant training or expertise on sanctions. Yet for whatever reason, some editors just can’t get enough of their op-eds, although it should be said that the editors of the Washington Post are more persuaded by the actual experts).

Because I see a very real danger that the policy views of those who’ve misjudged North Korea’s intentions all along, and who did so much to bring us to the worst nuclear crisis since 1962, could drown out the views of professional sanctions practitioners who offer us our last, best policy alternative to a devastating war, I do what little I can to amplify the views of experts who step forward to inform us. The latest example is David Cohen, who served as Deputy CIA Director and Undersecretary of the Treasury under President Obama:

In dealing with North Korea, the Trump administration should look to Iran. Specifically, it should take a page out of the Obama administration’s Iran sanctions playbook and apply against North Korea the tool used successfully to bring Iran to the nuclear negotiating table — “secondary sanctions” on those who do business with the regime. [David Cohen, The Washington Post]

As I’ve been shouting from the rooftops of this isolated outpost and elsewhere, until the reinforcements began to arrive …

North Korea is not, by any stretch, “sanctioned out.” Despite a broad set of international and U.S. sanctions, North Korea has gotten off relatively easy, especially as compared with Iran. That is largely because the United States has historically been reluctant to impose secondary sanctions to isolate North Korea, particularly against China, the regime’s principal legitimate trading partner. Certainly, the Trump administration should do its best to bring the Chinese government on board. But if China drags its feet, President Trump should proceed anyway.

And, consistent with the strategy behind the NKSPEA, hopefully soon to be strengthened by H.R. 1644

Secondary sanctions are both simple and enormously powerful. They work by presenting a stark choice to a foreign bank: It can process transactions for a bank already facing sanctions (for example, one of the many North Korean banks that have been listed by the United States) or it can maintain its access to the U.S. financial system, but it cannot do both. That presents an easy choice, because access to the U.S. financial system, which also means access to the U.S. dollar, is a practical necessity for almost any bank anywhere in the world.

Cohen then adds facts that are undoubtedly informed by financial intelligence to which he would have had access.
Adopting secondary sanctions against North Korea could cut the last tendrils of its access to the international financial system. As a recent assessment by a special U.N. committee reportedly concluded, North Korean banks and trading companies operate in China through China-based front companies. These front companies, in turn, have accounts at Chinese banks, from which they are able to do business globally, including in the United States.

Cohen then addresses the question of how “China” would react. Some experts, including some officials who continue to occupy senior posts in the State Department, insist that sanctions can’t work without Beijing’s voluntary cooperation. Certainly, there are some sanctions, such as customs inspections at China’s ports and borders, that can only work with China’s cooperation, although the NKSPEA and H.R. 1644 both have provisions to sanction uncooperative ports, shippers, and shipping registries.

I’ve also argued for a more nuanced view of “China,” in that such a large and complex country is not a monolith, but a collection of constituencies within both government and industry that would have different responses to secondary sanctions. In Cohen’s view, it’s the views of the financial sector that really matter, and just as with Banco Delta Asia, China’s banking industry responded cooperated.

When I was serving in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration, we employed secondary sanctions to significantly ramp up pressure on the Iranian government. Hundreds of foreign banks that had been transacting with sanctioned Iranian banks voluntarily severed those relationships, thereby isolating much of the Iranian banking system.

But two banks in particular continued to work with sanctioned Iranian banks. One was China-based Kunlun Bank, a midsize institution that, our financial intelligence told us, “provided hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of financial services” to a half-dozen sanctioned Iranian banks. Despite repeated warnings to the Chinese government, Kunlun refused to stop such activity. So in August 2012, Treasury used the secondary sanctions tool and cut off Kunlun from the U.S. financial system.

What happened next is instructive. The Chinese Foreign Ministry issued a relatively tepid and formulaic protest — and, behind the scenes, the Chinese government directed Kunlun to stop. Despite what some had feared, employing secondary sanctions against Kunlun neither led China to stop cooperating on Iran nor soured our relations with Beijing in any other respect.

And just as our strategic bombing campaign against Germany only had to paralyze a few critical industries (fuel) to be effective, targeted financial warfare against Pyongyang can be effective without targeting North Korea as a whole, if it can paralyze the regime’s finances.

I’ve pushed the boundaries of the Fair Use Doctrine far enough for one day, so read the rest of Cohen’s op-ed on your own. He goes on to suggest that the White House’s saber-rattling, which I view as harmful to our interests in Korea and Japan, may be designed to show China that the alternative to sanctions would be far worse, and that enforcing sanctions is a prerequisite to effective disarmament negotiations. He then advocates for a strategy of hitting the mid-sized Chinese banks that deal with North Korea first and leaving the bigger ones for later.

I don’t object to the first part of this strategy, although I also believe that some of the bigger banks, which are more likely to have branches in New York, should be targeted now with subpoenas to audit their compliance with the new Treasury regulation cutting off North Korean banks’ provision of indirect correspondent banking services. That’s one way to get the big banks to clean up their acts without actually taking legal action against them.

Banks that turn out to have violated the correspondent ban can don’t have to be targeted with measures as drastic as designation under NKSPEA 104 or Patriot Act 311; rather, they can be hit with civil penalties such as those applied to European banks that violated Iran sanctions. Under those circumstances, I’m confident that Congress wouldn’t object to a waiver under NKSPEA 208(c). In fact, we specifically wrote the exemption in 208(c)(1) to allow banks to agree to cooperate and provide additional financial intelligence, and to clean up their acts on money laundering compliance, pursuant to deferred prosecution agreements. Our options against non-cooperative banks are not all binary or nuclear, but vary across a wide spectrum of options.

For now, it looks like the Trump administration has decided to give China an opportunity to act on its own. I hope that opportunity is brief. Despite reports of fuel shortages and non-functioning ATMs in Pyongyang, you can color me skeptical; I’ve seen it all before. China’s strategy seems to be to generate headlines that it’s enforcing sanctions, only to ease off the moment those headlines reach the eyes of busy White House and congressional staffers. Then, as soon as Washington quits paying attention, it’s back to business as usual. The latestdevelopments with the so-called coal ban are only the latest example of China’s long record of broken commitments to enforce sanctions against Pyongyang.

I don’t object to giving China a brief opportunity to cooperate voluntarily, but it’s important to understand a few things. First, with China, the negotiation really begins after the contract is signed. Second, cheating is inevitable. Third, all of those diverse constituencies in China are watching how we react very carefully. Fourth, deterrence is as important in financial matters as it is in military matters. In the same sense that we keep forces in South Korea to deter North Korea from a military attack, having a strong legal and investigative team in place can help deter China from abusing our financial system. Right now, that force is badly understaffed and lacks political backing — and China knows it. There is no better way to show Beijing — and more importantly, China’s banking industry — that we’re serious than by staffing up the inter-agency working group that will investigate, enforce, and prosecute the violations of our money laundering laws that keep Kim Jong-un on his throne.

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전쟁이 아닌 법으로 북한의 핵무기를 어떻게 멈출 수 있는가?

안녕하세요, 한국의 친구들. 저는 워싱턴 DC에있는 미국 변호사입니다. 1998 년부터 2002 년까지 저는 한국에서 군인이었습니다. 저는 아름다운 문화와 사람들로 인해 한국에서의 생활을 사랑했습니다. 1999 년에, 저는 가장 정직하고, 아름다운 사람을 만났고, 그래서 저는 그녀와 결혼했습니다.  오늘 우리에게는 두 명의 자녀가 있습니다.

한국은 제가 사는 한 제 삶의 일부가 될 것입니다. 그래서 저는 북한에 대해 걱정하고 있습니다. 우리는 전쟁을 피해야만 하지만 우리는 또한 대한민국을 자유롭게 해야 합니다.

1998년 젊은 군인으로 처음 한국에 도착했을 때, 한국은 재통일에 대한 희망으로 들떠 있었습니다.

김대중이 대통령이었고, 북한의 경제를 변화시키고 개방하기 위해 원조와 북한과의 무역을 약속했었습니다.

김대중 정권아래 그리고 후에 노무현 정권에서 북한에 100억 달러를 지원했습니다. 그러나 그 누구도 북한이 그 돈을 어떻게 사용했는지 알 수 없습니다. 개성과 금강산은 단지 시작에 불과했습니다. 이제 북한은 외국 공장들로 채워 져야만 합니다.

김대중 정권이 그의 정책을 시행한 후 20년, 이제는 이 정책이 성공적인지를 알아 볼 시간이 되었다고 봅니다. 실패했다면, 햇볕정책의 목표가 달성될 가치가 있는 것일까요? 그 목표를 달성할 다른 전략은 없는 것일까요? 햇볕정책은 북한을 변화시키지 못했습니다. 남한의 원조는 핵실험이라는 그리고 남한의 영토 공격으로 그리고 남한의 장병들을 살해하

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