Annual Treasury Report on Counterfeiting of U.S. Currency Abroad

The full report is here, but it’s a big, fat, nasty pdf. Here’s the section on North Korea:

6.5.7 North Korea and the Supernote Since 1989, the U.S. Secret Service has led a counterfeit investigation involving the trafficking and production of highly deceptive counterfeit notes known as supernotes. The supernote investigation has been an ongoing strategic case with national security implications for the U.S. Secret Service since the note’s first detection in 1989. The U.S. Secret Service has determined through investigative and forensic analysis that these highly deceptive counterfeit notes are linked to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and are produced and distributed with the full consent and control of the North Korean government.

In March 2005 and again in June 2006, Interpol issued an “Orange Alert” regarding the DPRK and its continued quest to obtain or purchase printing supplies that would facilitate the counterfeiting of U.S. currency. The U.S. Secret Service is working very closely with the intelligence community in analyzing supernote distribution activity and monitoring the broader illicit affairs of the DPRK. Over the course of this sixteen-year investigation, approximately $22 million in supernotes has been passed to the public (table 6.5), and approximately $50 million in supernotes has been seized by the U.S. Secret Service.

Emphasis mine.

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Proliferation Security Watch

*   Hong Kong authorities have detained a North Korean ship “Kang Nam I, a 2,035-ton general cargo ship,” which had arrived from Shanghai.  North Korean crew members and Hong Kong customs officials suggest that the inspection is related to a couple dozen safety violations, that the ship is empty, and that the inspections are not related to U.N.S.C.R. 1718.  Crew members claim that the ship will sail again in two days.  The Chosun Ilbo reports that the search didn’t turn up any prohibited cargo.  [Update:   the Daily NK says this is related to 1718 and is based on recent U.S. intel.]

*   South Korea is denying reports that it allowed North Korean ships to pass through its waters without being searched.  Far be it for me to defend the South Korean government, but it’s not clear that the alleged  South Korean inaction came before or after  1718.  It’s also not clear from the text  why the headline suggested that the ships might have carried weapons.  I’ve disagreed with many of the South’s permissive and gullible policies toward the North, but I’m less interested in  past differences than in the question of whether the South knows that the rules have changed.

*   Opposition lawmakers are asking for more details on $13M in South Korean funds that ended up in blacklisted Banco Delta Asia.  The Chosun Ilbo report implies, but  does not state,  that the funds may have gone to North  Korea.  Not surprisingly, the Bank of Korea is denying the lawmakers access to the transaction records.

*   Clear the China shop!   John Bolton is on his way to Seoul!   “‘Ambassador Bolton’s trip here will not directly sway the government’s decision to implement the U.N. resolution,’ the official said. ‘It will just provide a chance for the government to confirm the U.N.’s stance on the North Korean nuclear issue.'”  Rrrrright.  Still you can’t argue with results like these.  Incidentally, John Bolton happens to be the architect of the Proliferation Security Initiative, which the United States is pressing the South Koreans to join.  Coincidence?  [Update:   cancelled.]  

*   South Korea is making one concession — it’s cracking down on strategic exports.  Readers may recall some very interesting remarks by U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow when he visited the Kaesong Industrial Park recently, which led to this very long post on how U.S. export control laws could affect Kaesong.

*   Here’s your official stud book on the U.N. sanctions committee that will oversee 1718 compliance.

*   Missed any good late-night TV recently?  This should take care of that:

Chinese police last month arrested two men on charges of trying to sell 1 kg of enriched uranium, an essential raw material for nuclear weapons, press reports said Monday. The two were ethnic Koreans living in China, police in Beijing confirmed. Press reports said Beijing police arrested the two men, identified as Chang and Chung, on charges of attempting to sell 969.03 grams of enriched uranium at a hotel there on Sept. 11.

Whether this is a case of loose nukes or the regime trying to disguise a transfer isn’t clear, although it would seem that the regime would have easier means than this to sell nuclear materials.  DPRK Studies has more.

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U.N.S.C.R. 1718: Who Won, Who Lost (Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 13)

John Bolton: Winner. I’d like to hear John Bolton’s critics deny that, as with Resolution 1695, he has wrung far more effectiveness from the U.N. than we had come to expect. Not only should we confirm this man, pronto, we should clone him. Madeleine Albright never got results like these.

The United States: Winner. We got everything we really wanted here:

  • help constricting Kim Jong Il’s financial arteries
  • the right to search his ships and planes.
  • an embargo on the purchase and sale of heavy weapons and WMD components.
  • something to hurt Kim Jong Il and his loyalists — the ban on luxury goods.
  • the real capacity to investigate, monitor, and enforce all of the above, including pursing them to Iran.

You don’t have to take it from me, either.

The United Nations: Winner (With a Caveat). Every time we go back to the U.N., we reenforce the expectation that we’ll go back next time. Bush made that decision, and by passing something fairly tough, the U.N. preserves this as a plausible policy option.

On closer examination, however, the U.N.’s role as executor of its own resolution is limited to a compliance monitoring committee. It is not acting as peacekeeper, enforcer, or (thank God) accountant. Execution is left to the navies and air forces of a more limited group of nations that are members of the Proliferation Security Initiative. The U.N.’s own role was merely one of delegating authority to more effective institutions. In a sense, you could describe it as a consensual devolution of the U.N.’s role, or, as John Bolton described it, “In a way, it is a kind of codification of the PSI, specifically with respect to North Korea.”

Still, this gives the U.N. a more important role than it seemed to be headed for, and by passing a tough resolution, it has preserved its relevance.

Japan: Big Winner. Japan seems to have had almost as much pull as one of the P-5. Key provisions, such as the compliance monitoring committee, appear to have been put in pursuant to its demand. Its navy will play a major role here, and under a cloak of U.N. legitimacy, which will make South Korea’s predictably silly comparisons to the Rape of Nanking seem even sillier. In fact, the South Koreans have only North Korea to blame for Japan’s reemergence as a world power.

South Korea: Loser. It will now be required to “ensure” that its Kaesong and Kumgang funds aren’t being spent on WMD’s, which it can’t do unless Kim Jong Il opens Bureau 39’s books to South Korean auditors. Not a chance. And already, South Korea is trying to lie its way out of complying:

South Korea’s Unification Ministry, which handles inter-Korean affairs, indicated the sanctions would not affect a tourism venture and a joint industrial complex in the North, saying the “projects have nothing to do with the weapons of mass destruction program.”

Critics have urged the South Korean government to halt the two projects, saying that funds may be diverted for the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Once again, however, it looks like UniFiction got ahead of facts. At the same time, the Foreign Ministry “welcomed” the resolution and promised to implement it “in good faith,” and the cabinet as a whole still hadn’t decided what its policy or its interpretation of 1718 would actually be:

It is still unclear how the resolution will affect South Korea’s initiative for joint ventures with its communist neighbor.

“Seoul will take appropriate measures in line with the resolution,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Choo Kyu-ho told Yonhap News Agency by phone.

Suh Choo-suk, senior presidential secretary for security affairs, and other senior officials held a meeting earlier in the day to evaluate the ramifications of the resolution on inter-Korean relations and economic projects and come up with the measures.

South Korea is considering holding a higher-level meeting to be presided over by the office of Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook or the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae, according to officials.

Han, for her part, called North Korea’s test “an unpardonable provocative act which threatens stability in Northeast Asia and global order.” That’s pretty stong language for this government. Uri Party leader Kim Geun-Tae, trying to position himself to the left of everyone including the preserved corpse of Kim Il Sung, insisted that Kaesong and Kumgang would continue unaffected. On top of this South Korea will have to reconsider its refusal to join the Proliferation Security Initiative. So the only conclusion you can really draw from all of this is that the ruling party is in a state of mass confusion. Think: chicken farm under mortar fire.

This, despite having its man confirmed as U.N. General Secretary. Although he had just been confirmed, Ban Ki-Moon should have had some pull with his fellow ambassadors vis-a-vis positions he might take over the next five years, but it didn’t work that way. Ban’s utter pliability and spinal deficiencies served Uri well on its infamous North Korea human rights absentions, but it denied Ban the ability to protect Kaesong, Kumgang, and other unifiction projects. And while it might have been willing to stand up to the United States on those issues, it will have much more trouble standing up to the U.N.

China: Big Loser. China has historically seen itself as the motherland of all surrounding states in Asia, and that’s particularly so for North Korea, which depends on China for its survival. Many analysts have already noted how North Korea’s missile and nuke tests have humiliated China, and the fact that so many of them have said it makes it all the more true. This was obviously a bitter pill for the Chinese to swallow.

China is uncomfortable with the possibility of the U.S. interdicting ships near its coasts, though Bolton has said he expects most inspections would be performed at ports.

The U.S. ambassador said North Korea’s apparent nuclear test “had to have been humiliating to China. After all of the efforts they’ve made over the years to protect North Korea from international approbation, for the North Koreans in the face of all that to test had to get quite a reaction in Beijing. And I think we’re still seeing that play out.”

China reiterated it would not conduct any inspections and called for caution.

“China strongly urges the countries concerned to adopt a prudent and responsible attitude in this regard and refrain from taking any provocative steps that may intensify the tensions,” China’s U.N. Ambassador Wang Guangya said.

North Korea: Big Loser. Even if you think North Korea’s disengagement is studied, you can’t believe they can be happy with the domestic or financial consequences this could have. I increasingly lean toward there being a less rational explanation for why North Korea does what it does, and in that regard, the Marmot has put up one of his best posts ever, drawing a comparison I’ve wanted to write about but never did — the Shinto genes of North Korean ideology (I have written about the Shinto / fascist genes in South Korean ideology). If the North Koreans really think that they can accomplish their objectives by “using the force,” the implications are incredibly scary. On one hand, you might not want to rile them, except that if you don’t get in their way, they’re determined to gather strength for the Great Gotterdammerung.

So what will this cost the North Koreans?  According to the CIA World Fact Book, North Korea exported $1.275 billion in 2004, and imported $2.819 billion worth, in the same year. In South Dakota, this is known as “eating like a sparrow and shitting like a goose.” It’s either unsustainable or inaccurate. I vote for the latter both, after having read the thoughts of former State Department official and Illicit Activities Initiative head David Asher. Asher broke it down this way:

In 2003 the DPRK ran a trade deficit of at least $835 million and that if more broadly measured to exclude concessionary trade with the ROK was more like $1.2 billion. Even making a very bold estimate for informal remittances and under the table payments for that year, the DPRK probably ran a current account deficit of at least $500 million. Moreover, North Korea’s accumulated trade deficit with the ROK and China alone since 1990 is over $10 billion. North Korea has not been able to borrow on international markets since the late 1970s and has at least $12 billion in unrepaid debt principal outstanding. Yet, until recently – at least – it has managed to avoid self-induced hyper-inflation (which should have occurred given the need to reconcile internal and external monetary accounts, even in a communist country). Instead, the street stalls in Pyongyang and other North Korean cities seem to be awash in foreign made cloths, food, and TVs and the quality of life of the elite seems to have improved. What’s apparently filling the gap and accounting for the apparent improvements to the standard of living for the elite? The short answer as I see it: Crime. And if I am right, then the criminal sector may account for as much as 35-40% of DPRK exports and a much larger percentage of its total cash earnings (conventional trade profit margins are low but the margin on illegal businesses is extremely high, frequently over 500%).

Breaking this down further, citing both Asher and Balbina Hwang (from 2003, using figures for 2001), who put North Korea’s total GNP at $15.7 billion in 2001. Remember, these are just estimates:

  • Missile sales — approximately $560 million. Gone. Missiles are not easy things to hide.
  • Legit exports — $650 milion. Scratch the substantial percentage of this that was with Japan ($200M?), and remember that the North Koreans won’t have legitimate trade to cover for the $300 million worth of dope they sell in Japan each year.
  • Dope — probably $500 million. Asher’s figures are more current than Hwang’s. Asher doesn’t give a precise estimate for North Korea’s dope income, but if you add the estimate of $300 million it makes that way in Japan alone to the Pong Su seizure in Australia ($150M), you can conservatively estimate $400-$500 million per year. That’s not far off from Hwang’s estimate of $500 million to $1 billion. Expect that to be curtailed sharply.
  • Cigarette smuggling — $500 to $700 million.
  • No estimate is available for what North Korea earns through conflict diamond and ivory smuggling, but that will probably also fall.
  • Remittances, mainly from Japan — $100 million. Gone.
  • Counterfeiting — $15 million or so. This will be somewhat harder to stop, although most customs services have dogs that can smell currency. Usually, the movement of bulk cash is an indicator of money laundering, tax evasion, or the evasion of transaction reporting requirements.

If we find any of that on the ships we search, we certainly aren’t going to just let it go. In a matter of days, the regime has lost several major sources of income. It’s hard to say exactly how much, but it could easily be half, and it could be more. Then, consider that North Korea also will have much more trouble recouping its earnings, because of growing financial restrictions on its bank accounts, which tend to be dual-use (legal and otherwise).

How will we enforce this in practice? Bolton is probably right that we would prefer to do most of the interdiction of North Korea’s traffic in port. Incidents like this seizure in a Taiwanese port will become more common. What if the North Koreans decide to go non-stop from Nampo to Bandar-e-Abbas? Then we can expect to see a series of naval skirmishes on the high seas.

The big crisis will come when the North Koreans try to fly non-stop from Pyongyang to Tehran. Would we really shoot down the airplane that might be carrying fissile plutonium, and might have had its cargo switched to schoolkids under cover of darkness or weather?

The ban on luxury items will certainly not mean a coup in the short term. The regime can weather this for a while. The gifts are probably a way of buying the loyalty of party members over the longer term, as they rise through the ranks. It’s unlikely that we’ll see much tangible effect from it for a few years. Over the long haul, Kim Jong Il, like any other Machiavellian prince, would rather be loved than feared. This will make it much harder for him to be loved.

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MUST-READ: Key U.S. Policy-Maker Calls China Out for Double-Dealing

David Asher, who recently led the Illicit Activities Initiative, is probably the architect of our tough new financial strategy against North Korea’s counterfeiting, smuggling, and money laundering.  He is also one of Washington’s clearest thinkers on North Korea.  Asher didn’t know that North Korea would actually  test a nuke when he delivered this address to the Heritage Foundation in September, and really, it deserved more media and blog attention than it got.  Asher, to say the least, doesn’t think China is playing an entirely positive role in disarming North Korea.

I am convinced that the Six-Party Talks mean something very different for Chi ­na than they do for the U.S. or Japan. In fact, I sense that for many in the Chinese leadership the Six-Party Talks have always been more about managing the U.S. and Japan in order to temper the possibil ­ity of our taking actions that could disrupt North Korean stability than they have been about serious ­ly promoting the denuclearization of North Korea. Despite its leading status in the talks, China has only on rare occasions been willing to put pressure on North Korea to denuclearize. Instead, the spo ­radic pressure it has applied has been more geared to trying to get the DPRK to act somewhat more civ ­ilized and less menacing, aiming to control, rather than trying to eliminate, the DPRK nuclear menace.

That  sounds right to me.  China wants North Korea to be a distraction for U.S. power in the region; it doesn’t want to crack the iron first that holds it together, because that could mean a messy democratic revolution, starving refugees, and ultimately, a much stronger unified Korea on its border.  On the other hand, China doesn’t want North Korea to scare the neighbors in the arms of a U.S.-led alliance or missile shield, which could eventually extend to Taiwan.  Its vote for U.N.S.C.R. 1695 was intended  bring Kim Jong Il back to heel, not bring him down. 

There is only a limited  unity of interests between China and the United States.  The United States wants to stop North Korea from becoming the Arsenal of Terror.  China would be giggling into its palm at such a development.  Asher’s polite description of that is “be[ing] realistic about our differences.”  He doesn’t think China is terribly worried about a nuclear North Korea, and I think he’s right.  But then he ups the ante:

China has long served as a safe harbor for North Korean proliferation and illicit trading networks and a transport hub for these networks via its airports and airspace, harbors and sea space. Moreover, in the past decade there have been way too many incidents of Chinese companies actively fronting for North Korea in the procurement of key technologies for the DPRK’s nuclear program. Some of these incidents suggest lax enforcement of export controls, poor border controls, and a head-in-the-sand attitude of senior authorities. Others suggest active collusion and/or deliberately weak enforcement of international laws and agreements against WMD and missile proliferation. There is a great body of information about this and the Chi ­nese are well aware of our grave concerns.

There is ample evidence for that charge, too, and Asher undoubtedly knows more than the publicly available information I’ve compiled.  That information implicates China in helping both North Korea and Iran.  So where is Asher going here?  I’ll give you a taste and advise you to read the rest on your own.

If we want Chinese government officials to act, we need to either present the specifics in a way that is beyond dispute or suggest that if they do not get a grip on the facts and do something themselves there will be significant economic consequences. Appealing to their self-interest is more persuasive than appealing to their purported sense of global responsibility.

Asher’s views may gain more currency as some of China’s cynical positions at the U.N. are revealed:

The latest U.S. proposal, obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday night, dropped Japanese demands to prohibit North Koreans ships from entering any port, and North Korean aircraft from taking off or landing in any country. These sanctions would likely face strong Russian and Chinese opposition.

The resolution would still require countries to freeze all assets related to North Korea’s weapons and missile programs. But a call to freeze assets from other illicit activities such as “counterfeiting, money-laundering or narcotics” was dropped. So was a call to prevent “any abuses of the international financial system” that could contribute to the transfer or development of banned weapons.

It looks like we’re headed to something between “a very angry letter” and sanctions that will really cause Kim Jong Il to disarm, or failing that, stop his proliferation.  Asher puts China’s position in a new light.

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The Sunshine Policy Is Dead, Part 3

Like the captain of a sinking ship herding rats back into the hold, Kim Dae Jung is desperately trying to preserve a policy that was his dubious legacy.  Without Sunshine, there is only bribery and a tarnished hunk of metal.  Kim, predictably, apportions blame equally between North Korea and the United States.  Honestly, there is just no pleasing some people.  We’ve offered the North Koreans far too much for far too long.  If DJ really thinks the North Koreans have a God-given right to counterfeit — our response to that is their latest excuse for refusing to talk — nothing is stopping South Korea from broking the perfect compromise.  It can let the North Koreans print these:

Will South Korea finally find  concentrated sobriety of the condemned?  Michael Breen strikes true brilliance in diagnosing the syndrome that has removed all friction from its grasp of reality:

[I]n other areas of public life, in defense, in politics and in managing relations with allies and with North Korea, there seems to be a peculiar weirdness at work. It ‘s as if leaders align themselves with certain people and nations for emotional reasons like, we went to the same high school and then work backwards to develop strategy to justify it and tactics to fit.

The result is frequently stupid.

Take the nonsense over Dokdo, for example. What ‘s that all about? Do Koreans really care more about Dokdo than about the human rights of 23 millions in the rebel-held territory of North Korea, who according to the Constitution, are legally citizens of South Korea?

That could be a yes.  (ht: Asia Watch)

And yet there is hope.  U.S. Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, seeing that the iron is hot, is raising the point that I’d predicted the USG would eventually raise:  Seoul’s direct aid to the North Korean regime.

Mr. Vershbow declined to comment specifically on what Seoul should do. But, he continued, “I would just say that this is probably a time when all countries need to review their programs of assistance that may provide financial benefits to a regime that, as we have seen, enable it to devote a disproportionately large share of its resources to nuclear programs and other military programs.”

The ambassador continued, “I think that applies as well to China, which provides considerable assistance to North Korea.” He urged more cooperation from Seoul in Washington’s Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational program to suppress international trade in mass weapons and missile components. 

The  South Korean government has rediscovered the benefits of allying itself with the United States.  It’s taking the PSI  request seriously.  I suppose it’s a little early for  the “Rebirth of an Alliance, Part 1.”  That will depend on whether Seoul attaches some meaningful conditions — on disarmament, abductees, and human rights — to its aid.

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U.S. to Propose Arms Embargo on North Korea

I’d proposed it two days before July’s missile tests, because of the rising danger of another preventable famine, but  it now looks as if John Bolton is circulating  this concept  as part of what he’d tried to get from the U.N. after the July missile tests:

The United States circulated a draft U.N. resolution late Monday that would condemn North Korea’s nuclear test and impose tough sanctions on the reclusive communist nation for Pyongyang’s “flagrant disregard” of the Security Council’s appeal not to detonate a device.

The draft, obtained by The Associated Press, incorporates proposals circulated by the U.S. earlier in the day to prohibit all trade in military and luxury goods and crack down on illegal financial dealings.

An arms embargo on a dangerous, belligerent nation that starves its people by the millions to pay for more arms?  Seems like a hard idea to resist.  But then, we’re dealing with the United Nations here.

Although I was surprised to see China vote in favor of the last resolution, it’s clear that North Korea’s behavior has only served to drive Japan into a closer alliance with the United States and undermine South Korea’s neutralist leadership, which is about to lose the benefit of its adult supervision, such as it is.  It’s also clear that the United States has financial levers on China, and  I’m guessing that those played some role in the Bank of  China’s recent blocking of North Korean accounts. 

What is still missing from our policy?  Meaningful outreach to the people of North Korea  and the willingness to be subversive about it.  Ideally, that outreach would begin with feeding them, but the North Korean government would clearly prefer to let them starve.  If North Korea won’t allow us to monitor our food aid and insure that it goes to those who need it as much as at any time since the 1990’s, then it’s time to bring North Korean refugees to secure places where we can train them to go back to their homeland and plant the seeds of dissent and resistance.

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Greeks Intercept Counterfeit N.K. Cigarettes

Officials in Greece nabbed a North Korean freight vessel that was carrying 1.5 million cartons of contraband cigarettes and arrested the seven seamen aboard, it was announced Monday. [link]

Let’s hope there’s a trial, and that this one won’t be  a goose egg  like the Pong Su case was.  Whether the Aegean could use another artificial reef, I leave to the Greeks, but  Greece is  always happy to do the exact opposite of what America asks.

The Greek Merchant Marine Ministry said the vessel was discovered about 11 km southwest of the Katakolo port on the Peloponnesus Peninsula in southern Greece, and all of the cargo looked bound for that country. The Evva is currently anchored at the Katakolo port. Greece has uncovered 4 million cartons of contraband cigarettes at sea so far this year, of which 3 million were aboard North Korean vessels.

Stuart Levey recently stated that counterfeit cigarettes are the North’s largest source of income.

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Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 11: Eyes on Seoul

Green eyeshades are turning toward Seoul, Kaesong, and Kumgang.  If you think things were bad before, this is where U.S.-Korea relations will be severely tested.  The U.S. Treasury Department isn’t going to put up with Seoul acting as Kim Jong Il’s financier for long, and  with the  likely exceptions of some shady  Russian banks  and whatever China is secretly providing at the state-to-state level, South Korea is Kim Jong Il’s last cash cow.

Kumgang

That poll yesterday — the one that showed the ruling Uri Party’s approval rating at nine percent — also showed that only 15% support continued government support for Kumgang.   That’s bad news for the project, which is a congenital money-loser due to Kim Jong Il’s demands  for a bigger part of the take, even as the number of visitors declines.  Kumgang needs government support, and after the  2007 elections, it may not be able to count on it.

Hyundai Asan, which organizes package tours to North Korea’s Mt. Kumgang, has seen the fee it pays Pyongyang per visitor grow a whopping 78.3 percent over the last two years. It paid US$33.75 a head in 2004 but $59.50 now.

Documents the Unification Ministry submitted to Grand National Party lawmaker Chin Young on Friday say Hyundai Asan agreed to pay an entrance fee to Mt.Kumgang according to the number of tour days as of July 1, 2004 and set the fee at $10 for a day trip, $25 for a two-day trip and $50 for a three-day trip. On May 1 last year, it agreed to raise it to $15 for a day trip, $35 for the two-day trip, and $70 for a three-day trip. On July 1 this year, after a fractious period in relations between Pyongyang and the firm, it agreed to another hike to $30 for the day trip, $48 for the two-day trip and $80 for the three-day trip.

[….]   It was the first time the breakdown has become public.

Even without Treasury in the picture, the trends were not working in Kumgang’s favor.  Besides the aforementioned, there’s  also the public rift between the North Koreans and Hyundai Asan and  a public strong-arm of Hyundai Asan by the UniFiction Ministry.  This endeavor isn’t going to turn a profit anytime soon.  Enter the Treasury Department, which will soon ask  what no one in South Korea really wants to say: “How  does Kim Jong Il  spend that money?”  Some think they know the answer, and that answer puts Kumgang on a collision course with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1695.

Kaesong

Kaesong’s new troubles  were reflected in a decision to delay a planned expansion of the industrial park.   First,  its  inclusion in a proposed Free Trade Agreement with the United States is a dead letter. That means that  Kaesong’s main  advantage, cheap labor, may  be offset  by a competitive disadvantage against other Korean manufacturers, whose products  would receive lower import duties at U.S. ports, thus setting them up for other advantages that go with the economics of scale.  Without FTA treatment, it’s hard to see what  manufacturer wouldn’t prefer China, where the authorities at least understand the value of keeping their commitments.

The U.S. government is also  reiterating its seriousness about the enforcement of U.N.S.C.R. 1695, and I predict that Kaesong  will  soon start  getting more of the wrong kind of attention from the  U.S. Treasury Department.  The Finance Ministry,  which seems to be the one part of the Korean government that’s still on good terms with America, has sometimes seemed to reflect Treasury’s concerns, even when that required it to contradict the UniFiction Ministry. Recently, it  sent a warning letter to businesses  operating in North Korea, reflecting  a stricter  reading of  U.N.S.C.R. 1695,  which requires states to exercise “vigilance” in avoiding funding for North Korean weapons programs.  This contradicted  Lee Jong-Seok’s  “don’t ask, don’t tell” interpretation.  This sets us up for the widening of that rift to Kaesong. 

The dispute involves the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, which is legally a North Korean entity, but whose membership is either composed of South Korean investors in Kaesong and North Korean officials.  The investors use the Committee’s accounts at the Woori Bank to pay the North Korean regime for the workers’ wages.   This is interesting to me  in two ways:  first, Kim Jong Il presumably doesn’t pay them in dollars, so the mystery about what the workers are really paid deepens; second, you have to wonder where the money really does go.

The South Korean papers  seem more interested in finding a scandal that will hurt Roh in the sunset of his deeply unpopular presidency.  Their angle was the compliance of those transfers with South Korean law.  The papers implied, but never really explained, that South Korean law prohibits North Korean entities from controlling South Korean bank accounts (I looked for the law myself, with no luck.  Anyone?).   This week, the Joongang Ilbo  claimed to have  “government documents” proving that UniFiction Minister Lee Jong Seok and his underlings  “pressured Woori Bank to consider allowing North Korea to open a bank account.”  The JI also had confirmation from an unnamed  Unification Ministry official, who tied to characterize this as “just a discussion and not formal pressure against the bank,” and claimed that “the bank made its own decision, without being pressured by the ministry.”  If the law actually says what the JI implies it says, this alleged  letter from the UniFiction Ministry  does seem like (1) subtle pressure, and (2) a slippery, obfuscating interpretation of the law.

“The committee is composed of South Korean members, thus opening the account under its name is within the scope of approved inter-Korean cooperation projects,” the ministry told the bank in the letter.

The committee, however, is a North Korean corporation established under North Korean laws. Contrary to the ministry’s claim, North Korean officials are also working there. Minutes of a meeting on March 7, where government officials discussed the issue, were also provided to the JoongAng Ilbo, showing the Unification Ministry apparently pressured the bank despite objections from other ministries. “We urge the bank to make a wise decision,” the ministry said, according to the minutes.

Minister Lee  denies  pressuring Woori or violating the law, saying that “[n]o South Korean bank has opened accounts for exclusive use by North Korea or its officials.”   Ordinarily, Lee’s word would not move my meter very far, particularly with all of the qualifications in that denial.  Later, Lee admits that  the holder of the account  is legally a North Korean entity, but says  that we should  ignore that and listen to  him instead.

The organization, the Kaesong Industrial District Management Committee, is a North Korean entity by legal definition, according to the minister. But, he said, it is a South Korean body, established and managed “by our people and for our convenience.”

“Naturally, (the bank) opened accounts for the management committee, headed by (South Korean) Chairman Kim Dong-keun,” Lee said in a regular press briefing.

“It is a very fanciful story to say (the bank) opened the accounts for North Korea and that this may be linked to North Korea’s efforts to evade U.S. financial sanctions, but one that helps no one,” the minister said.

The Joongang Ilbo is now backing off the story of UniFiction Ministry pressure on the Kaesong Committee account, but asserting that the Ministry applied pressure elsewhere:

But the ministry apparently did try to use its influence in a related but separate matter; other documents provided by Representative Kwon showed that it pressed the bank to allow the North Korean General Bureau of Special Zone Development, which oversees Pyongyang’s capitalist experiments in operating special economic zones, to open other accounts. Woori Bank, supported by the finance and foreign ministries and the National Intelligence Service, objected strongly and prevailed at a meeting in Seoul on March 7.

Meanwhile, the Finance Ministry was voicing its  disapproval of the financial  arrangements surrounding Kaesong  in documents leaked to the Chosun Ilbo:

In the documents, the ministry points out that anonymous dollar transactions could lead to trouble in tax collection, and be used as means for money laundering, customs evasion and payments for smuggling. They could also distort the international account balance, since they are not included in foreign exchange statistics, the ministry said. “To speak extremely, with the transaction method, the North can make a camouflage purchase of a South Korean company and use it as a channel for surreptitious remittances of illegal money from foreign countries,” Lee said.

Can you say, “money laundering concern?”  In other words, this probably is  bad policy,  very risky business for Woori,  and  contrary to  an honest reading of  U.N.S.C.R. 1695, but it’s not at all clear that we have the makings of Kaesong-gate here. 

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Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 10: The First Shoe Drops

Japan and Australia have imposed sanctions on a series of the companies Kim Jong Il uses to collect foreign currency and dual-use items. In Japan’s case, this includes shutting off a substantial income source for the North: cash remittances from ethnic Koreans in Japan:

The sanctions will effectively freeze North Korea’s assets in Japan by banning withdrawals and overseas remittances from the targets’ accounts in Japanese banks.

This is about as robust an option as I had predicted here, although the North Koreans will likely try to smuggle the cash anyay (tip: the Japanese should invest in some currency-sniffing dogs). And the cost of Kim Jong Il’s fireworks display continues to escalate:

Meanwhile, Australia imposed financial sanctions on 12 companies and one individual suspected of involvement in North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons. Australia is one of the few Western countries that maintain official diplomatic ties with Pyongyang. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said “This supports and complements similar action taken by Japan today and previous actions taken by the U.S., and sends a strong message to North Korea.”

Australia’s rapproachement with North Korea was probably doomed from the moment the Pong Su was intercepted.

The other shoe that hasn’t dropped is the announcement of U.S. sanctions. The State Department isn’t saying what those will be, but it did break the silence of its deliberations to thank Japan and Australia, and to urge other nations to join in. South Korea isn’t likely to be one of those nations if it can help it, but it’s not willing to let its banks replace Banco Delta as the money laundering venue of choice, either. Stay tuned.

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No Balance, No Net: Anything Could Happen During the Roh-Bush Meeting

If you have any questions about the state of U.S.-South Korean relations today, you need only read this.

Seoul and Washington have decided not to adopt a joint statement or declaration at the Roh-Bush summit.

Contrast that to the scripted appearances and affirmations of unity we saw last time. No longer. This visit was hurriedly scheduled after North Korea’s missile launches, which showed everyone just how little security seven billion dollars could purchase, and after which the United States broke sharply with the South Korean approach to the North. Reports now suggest that an announcement of U.S. sanctions is imminent, following a concerted Treasury Department effort to cut the financial lifelines to North Korea’s regime-sustaining economy. As a result, one of the most-watched meetings will be between Roh and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson. John Bolton’s surprising victory on U.N. Security Council Resolution 1695 seems set to play a significant role in the U.S. effort.

The other object of speculation: rumors that the American government will rapidly downgrade its military contribution to the protection of a South Korean government that has, in effect, declared itself a neutral power, failed to protect U.S. personnel (including its ambassador) and installations from violent anti-American leftists, made common cause with those extremists’ basest hatreds, publicly insulted the American President and his policies, and consistently frustrated U.S. foreign policy objectives. The Pentagon’s plans have shattered the illusion, once widely held among Koreans, that South Korea was indispensable to U.S. foreign policy in the region.

For members of the twin Korean and American establishments that have grown up around the U.S.-Korean alliance, the absence of public appearances, statements, and news reports must be ominous (one wonders what counsel they offered Roh as he brought us to this point). In ordinary circumstances, especially in the presence of this kind of speculation, such statements would form a reassuring safety net below which relations between the two nations could not fall. Having proven the ineptness of his balancing act, Roh now works without a net.

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Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 9

The Treasury Department is not through with Kim Jong Il. Undersecretary Stuart Levey has set his sights on two of North Korea’s last two lifelines, South Korea and now, Russia:

The United States is not yet satisfied with the results of sanctions aimed at changing North Korea despite the impact the sanctions have had, a senior Treasury official said Friday. The U.S. will watch how the situation develops with Russia, which reportedly has become one of the very few havens for North Korea to hide illicit funds, Undersecretary Stuart Levey said.

The U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang have been “more powerful than many thought possible,” he said. “I think our sanctions have had real impact, but the real goal, I think, is to see a real change in North Korea,” he said at the American Enterprise Institute.

Why, what a fascinating — and encouraging — choice of words at that forum.

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The Seven Billion Dollar Man

[Update: The actual figure turns out to be over $7 billion, if you include all aid since 1995 and add in Kim Dae Jung’s $500M bribes. It still excludes money from South Korean corporations, and of course, aid from the U.N. or other countries. South Korea now provides 46% of North Korea’s support. h/t The Nomad.]

Let’s briefly review where we’ve been with North Korea over the last year — missile tests, nuclear scares, crude insults, food aid stolen from hungry people, and the burgeoning flight of refugees. In light of all this, I would really like to hear South Korea’s explanation of just what its $3.13 billion (with a “b”) contribution to Kim Jong Il’s Hennessey fund has bought for the cause of peace. That’s just since 2003, mind you. Unacceptable answers include submarines, artillery, MiG-29’s, and missiles, but we’ll give partial credit for “cirrhosis.”

I presume that figure excludes indirect aid, such as the money-losing Kumgang project that the South Korean government has coerced Hyundai Asan into maintaining. Yes, we know where that money is going, too. Can you see the collision course between that aid and the U.S. Treasury Department? How about now?

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson reportedly asked his South Korean counterpart on Thursday to help block illicit financial transactions conducted by North Korea.

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Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 8

Nigel Cowie, North Korea’s most “legitimate” banker, is selling out, and this time, that’s not just a moral judgment. Richardson links this piece, written by none other than Bradley K. Martin, indicating that he’s selling his Daedong Credit Bank to the British-based Koryo Group, but will stay on to help manage the bank. As for the issue of Daedong’s much-proclaimed legitimacy, Martin adds what strikes me as a highly salient fact:

The minority owner of Daedong Credit is Korea Daesong Bank, a unit of North Korea’s Daesong Group. A 1995 U.S. government study cited close ties between Daesong and Room 39, an office of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party said to handle foreign exchange-gathering projects for the country’s leader.

Now, there’s the kind of jaw-dropping understatement you don’t read every day. Bureau 39’s function is “foreign exchange-gathering” in the same sense that Heidi Fleiss was a physical therapist and Gotti’s bag was alternative dispute resolution. That’s a disappointment from Martin, a first-rate journalist who wrote a must-read book, well worth its high price for its defector interviews alone (and mainly for them). By more-or-less universal acclaimation, Bureau 39 is suspected of being North Korea’s primary dealer in counterfeit currency, missiles and WMD components, and dope (more). And what of its “close ties” to Korea Daesong Bank? According to a report from the Far Eastern Economic Review, this close:

Kim Dok Hong, a top North Korean official who fled to South Korea in 1997, says that both banks [wholly-owned KDB subsidiary Golden Star Bank being the other] come under the jurisdiction of Bureau 39.

Another interesting fact reported in this article:

The Congressional Research Service–which provides United States congressmen with background briefings–reported on March 5 last year that “the U.S. military command and the Central Intelligence Agency reportedly believe that North Korea is using for military purposes the large cash payments, over $400 million since 1998, that the Hyundai Corporation has to pay for the right to operate [the] tourist project.”

I did not find the Treasury report referenced in Martin’s article, but I did find a U.S. Embassy document that relays a South Korean government conclusion that Bureau 39 controls Korea Daesong Bank. If those reports are accurate, Mr. Cowie’s bank, Daedong Credit Bank, is a direct business partner of Korea Daesung Bank. This, in turn, arguably makes Mr. Cowie an indirect business partner of the men at Bureau 39 who are printing supernotes and dealing in dope, and of the man in direct control of Bureau 39 — Kim Jong Il himself. That would make this spirited protestation of Daedong Credit Bank’s independence from the regime misleading in the extreme. As for the financial prognosis of that regime, it’s a bleak day when a bitter-end promoter like Cowie decides selling his interest in the bank, especially now. With most of its assets still frozen in Banco Delta Asia and unlikely to be unfrozen soon, you have to believe that he’s getting a less-than-optimal price.

In the end, however, Stuart Levey may just be hastening what what Kim Jong Il has been doing all along — breaking its agreements and scaring away investors.

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Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 7 (Updated)

[Update: My closing comment below about an expansion of our goals was an understatement:

The U.S. Treasury Department, in a shift in its policy toward North Korea, has decided to treat all transactions involving the nation as suspect and subject to sanctions while dictator Kim Jong Il develops nuclear weapons.

“Given the regime’s counterfeiting of U.S. currency, narcotics trafficking and use of accounts worldwide to conduct proliferation-related transactions, the line between illicit and licit North Korean money is nearly invisible,” said Stuart Levey, Treasury’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.

Levey’s statement to Bloomberg News departs from Treasury’s earlier position that it was targeting only overtly illegal activities by North Korean companies. The policy change, which may impinge on foreign banks, coincides with an effort by President George W. Bush to pressure North Korea to return to talks aimed at scrapping its nuclear-weapon and ballistic- missile programs.

It looks like my calls in this post are holding up pretty well. This is essentially a PATRIOT 311 approach without the formal designation. I can’t say whether it’s the opaque dullness of international finance or the fact that George W. Bush finally has an effective North Korea policy, but almost no one seems to have taken note of the most important U.S. policy initiative toward North Korea in decades. H/t NKZone.]

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Now, it’s Russia:

Fresh U.S. and Japanese economic sanctions against North Korea are becoming more likely with signs that the reclusive country may be preparing for a nuclear test. A government official in Seoul said Friday the U.S. regards Pyongyang’s outrage at earlier financial sanctions as feigned, implying that the freezing of the North’s accounts in a Macau-based bank last September may have just been the first step.

Peter Beck, a North Korea expert at the International Crisis Group in Seoul, says the next target of U.S. investigations will be North Korea’s accounts in Russia. He added the Bush administration was very pleased with the results of the investigation in Asia. Beck said the U.S. chased accounts and financial transactions in Asia, then in Europe, and now for the final stage will be moving on to Russia.

After having its accounts in Macau frozen, North Korea attempted to open accounts in Vietnam, Mongolia and Hong Kong but was turned down everywhere. Increasingly desperate, the Stalinist state turned to Luxemburg and Germany but was rebuffed there too. “The U.S. has the ability to put all kinds of pressure on European banks,” a government official here said.

This sort of pressure makes the re-imposition of trade sanctions we lifted in 1999 seem meaningless. What we’re doing now is cutting off everyone’s trade with Kim Jong Il, not just ours. Eventually, this will result in a direct confrontation between the United States and South Korea over trade with the North.

To further show just how dramatically the U.S. has moved toward squeezing the North Korean regime, the State Department’s chief negotiator is getting behind the effort:

The top U.S. point man with North Korea will urge Asian powers to end arms-related trade with Pyongyang as ordered by the U.N. on a tour of the region next week, U.S. officials say.

Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, who departs on Sunday for Japan, China and South Korea, will assure them that despite the U.N. order increasing pressure on the North, the United States still backs six party talks to persuade it to abandon its nuclear activities, one official said.

The United Nations order to choke off weapons-related trade with North Korea passed after Pyongyang launched multiple missile tests on July 5.

The U.N. vote did not signal a new U.S. attitude to the six-party talks. “Our problem is that we don’t have a negotiating partner” in Pyongyang, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of diplomatic sensitivities.

That sounds about right to me. I also sense an expansion of the goal here, from choking off the missile trade to the arms trade as a whole. I’m certainly not going to criticize that.

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Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 6

From the AP:

The financial noose is tightening around North Korea as international banks sever ties with the nation – a move championed by the United States, a top Treasury Department official says.

[….]

“There is sort of a voluntary coalition of financial institutions saying that they don’t want to handle this business anymore and that is causing financial isolation for the government of North Korea,” Stuart Levey, the Treasury Department’s undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in an interview Monday with The Associated Press.

“They don’t want to be the banker for someone who’s engaged in crime, as the North Korean government is,” he said.

Banks in Singapore, Vietnam, China, Hong Kong and Mongolia are opting not to do business with North Korea, Levey said.

“Is there a complete cutoff, so that they can’t get banking anywhere? No, that’s not the case, but they’re having a very difficult time finding banking services,” he said. “You’re seeing a near complete isolation.”

Remember — the feds brought Al Capone down with a tax evasion charge.

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Witness: Counterfeit Bills Came from N. Korea

If you don’t know the background, start here. One of the Chinese gangsters is apparently cooperating, and went to court yesterday:

A Californian man indicted on charges of smuggling counterfeit dollars into the U.S. testified at his trial that the high-quality counterfeit US$100 bills or “supernotes” were manufactured in North Korea, the National Intelligence Service said Monday. The NIS reported to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee that the man admitted conspiracy to smuggle the supernotes and admitted where the phony bills were made.

eh … eh … eh … RICO! Excuse me.

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Kim Jong Il Unplugged, Part 5

Stuart Levey’s visit to Asia last month is paying off. Yet another nation is cutting off Kim Jong Il’s finances.

Vietnamese banks have already closed down North Korean accounts over the past few weeks, most likely forcing Pyongyang to move its money to its last remaining haven, Russia, said Peter Beck, head of the International Crisis Group’s Seoul office, on Tuesday.

Beck said Nigel Cowie, general manager of North Korea’s Daedong Credit Bank in Pyongyang, e-mailed him last week and said Vietnamese banks have shut down Daedong’s and other North Korea-held accounts.

[….]

“The only financial window they (North Koreans) have left now is Russia, I am told,” Beck said at a roundtable on North Korea hosted by the Mansfield Foundation.

Somewhere, the world’s smallest violin is playing an adagio for Nigel Cowie, although I still count Switzerland and Luxemburg as two countries that may yet harbor North Korean accounts. I also recommend Andy Jackson’s post here, which discusses North Korea’s most “legitimate” banker. Cowie and his constituency of defenders in the comments probably set a record for most uses of the word “legitimate” per column inch, which I suppose depends on how you define the term. Whether Cowie is laundering money, wittingly or otherwise, is a matter I’ll leave to the Treasury Department, since there’s really little point in speculating in a factual vacuum about an investigation I can only assume to be ongoing, based on the media reports. You may also choose to accept Cowie’s explanation of why his bank’s “legitimate” transactions are conducted with large bundles of cash.

Third, there are good reasons why much of the international trade of the DPRK for these sorts of goods is cash-based. This relates mainly to the fact that the local currency is not convertible (and indeed we do not handle local currency), so imported goods are bought and sold for hard currency. The absence of the normal system of reciprocal correspondent bank accounts that exists in other countries which enables transactions to be settled by electronic book entry; the shortage of liquidity in the local market, which means that people are reluctant to deposit money in banks because they don’t know when they’ll be able to get the money out, so they would rather carry cash – and so on. This is quite a big subject in itself, and I have done a separate paper on this issue, but the bottom line is that people do tend to transact largely in cash, which in itself is not illegal – in this market, it is in fact often the only way.

Most of this could just as well apply to the Taliban in 2000. What all those conditions have in common is that they’re self-inflicted by the North Korean regime itself, out of a combination of economic dysfunction, repressive statism, recalcitrant lawlessness, and no small measure of concealment. But let’s make Nigel Cowie the only man in North Korea entitled to a presumption of innocence and assume that his bank’s transactions are all lawful. He has chosen to set up shop among stacks of dope money, suspicious dual-use imports, and counterfeit Benjamins. Then, Cowie complains when he winds up in Treasury’s impact zone as a result. In a regime as intentionally opaque as North Korea’s, some “collateral damage” to a relative sliver (veneer? perish the very thought!) of “legitimate” activities is inevitable. Things seems particularly murky in the wake of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1695, which demands that North Korea’s financiers exercise “vigilance” in assuring that their funds don’t go to the missile fund.

What we do know about Mr. Cowie’s business is that he aspires to profit by financing this regime, and that he knows damned well how Kim Jong Il will spend those finances. And won’t. If this is legitimate, then the world owes Walther Funk a historical absolution. Or, as Stuart Levey puts it:

“You don’t want to be the one ten years from now who’s got (Korean leader) Kim Jong Il’s money,” Treasury Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey said in an interview with Reuters.

“(It’s) just like we saw during the (former U.S. President Bill) Clinton administration when they exposed the Nazi banks,” Levey said. Swiss banks were embarrassed in 1997 by revelations that the German government had passed funds through the Swiss National Bank and other Swiss banks during World War II to finance the Nazi war effort.

“You don’t want to be on the wrong side of that. I think banks understand that. I just don’t know whether they are taking all the steps that they can and we would encourage them to do it,” he said.

There’s no laundering the culpability that goes with enabling some things.

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