Malaysia may expel North Korean miners (if it can find them)

Kim Jong-un is getting away with murder in Malaysia, thanks to the weakness and corruption of its government. Four North Korean suspects in the assassination of Kim Jong-nam fled immediately after the fatal attack. Because the world has taught Kim Jong-un that terrorism works, the Malaysian government let three other suspects leave after North Korea took several Malaysians (including diplomats) hostage.

Malaysia has since said that it will not cut diplomatic relations with Pyongyang, which (as some | excellent  | investigation | and | journalism | have revealed) uses Malaysia as a base of operations for moneylaundering on a large scale. The best one can now hope is that the exposure of these violations of U.N. sanctions and human rights abuses, hopefully backed by strong diplomacy and the threat of sanctions, will embarrass Malaysia into shutting down those commercial links.

One of those links is the use of North Korean miners in Malaysia for work so dangerous that “[n]o local or Sarawakian will dare to take up such jobs.” And of course, in the end, the workers probably don’t see more than a fraction of their own wages. The other day on Twitter, I pointed to an apparent discrepancy between an Arirang report that 140 of 176 North Korean workers in Malaysia had “gone missing,” and the Borneo Post report it apparently referenced as its source, which said that the 140 were merely overstaying their expired work permits. But if this CNN report is to be believed, Arirang might not have been so far off.

Authorities in Malaysia are looking for 117 North Koreans who have overstayed their work permits, according to the country’s Immigration Department.

Datuk Seri Mustafar Ali, director-general of Malaysia’s Immigration Department, told CNN on Tuesday that authorities are seeking the North Korean workers. [….]

That standoff ended, but it revealed that a significant number of North Koreans lived and worked in Malaysia.

All of the 117 North Koreans wanted by immigration are in the state of Sarawak, Ali said. It is the only state that employs North Korean workers, the country’s human resource minister said, according to state-run Bernama news agency.

Ali said the workers have been given one week to turn themselves in, and he said his department knows of their whereabouts.

“We will definitely go after them as their work permits have expired, and thus they are considered illegal workers,” he said. “But first we would like to give them or their employers a week’s notice to voluntarily turn them in.” [CNN]

While investigating the discrepancy between the Arirang and Borneo Post stories, I ran across another Borneo Post story in which two reporters traveling in Sarawak missed their turn and almost (but not quite) accidentally ran into one of the coal mines where the North Koreans work.

A few hundred metres into the road, we met a couple of strange looking foreigners, who happened to be North Koreans. We asked one of them, a woman maybe in her late 30s, for the location of the coal mine which is still operating. But she asked us our purpose of coming and we told her that we just wanted to have a look at the coal mine as it would be an interesting subject to write.

As journalists, we have the basic instinct of a good subject matter. And there and then, We knew we had got a good one. Then we drove to a cemented square in front of two rows of barracks. As we stopped our vehicle – the MU-X – a few strangers came charging at us. We had no clue what they were saying, but obviously they were speaking in Korean. As we tried to explain to them our purpose, more of them showed up. One of them rudely pointed to their site office.

At the office, we met a security guard and a general clerk – a pleasant Iban lady who spoke both Mandarin and English fluently. We told her of our purpose and she was very informative. It was from her that we knew that there are 49 North Koreans and a few Nepalis working at the coal mine.

While we were interviewing the Iban lady, the North Korean woman came charging and asked us to leave immediately as we did not have an authorisation letter. So we called Snowdan again and asked him to talk to the Korean woman. But she insisted that we should leave immediately and threatened to call in the police if we failed to listen to her command.

Feeling uneasy and sensing something unpleasant might happen, we decided that we should just leave.

After we had left the site, many questions popped in our minds such as ‘How is it that the locals do not know there are at least 49 North Koreans working and living in their midst?’ and ‘Why has the coal mine been operating so secretively and discreetly?’ We hope the authorities could shed some light on this. [Borneo Post]

And here is where those workers live:

One possibility is that the workers’ minders have told them to lay low for a while until the heat is off, and the appropriate officials can be “convinced” to extend their visas. The more intriguing possibility is that some of those workers have no intention of going back to North Korea at all. They couldn’t survive for long on their own, but if journalists can find North Korean miners, so can the South Korean NIS.

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Malaysia’s lax enforcement of North Korea sanctions has finally come home

Over the weekend, Malaysian authorities painstakingly decontaminated a terminal of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport where North Korean agents — including a diplomatcarried out a lethal attack with the nerve agent VX, a substance so deadly that a tiny droplet can kill an adult. The authorities are clearly concerned that the use of a persistent chemical weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal will cause panic among Malaysian citizens and members of the traveling public, as well they should be. Pyongyang’s reckless act endangered thousands of innocent lives. It endangered every child who sat on the floor while her mother used the check-in machines. It endangered every baby who touched a contaminated surface and put her finger in her mouth, and every mother who used one of the sinks the attackers used to wash their hands. It endangered every worker who cleaned the restrooms or vacuumed the floors, every traveler who touched the handrails on the escalators going down to the taxi rank, every passenger who rode in one of those taxis after the attackers did, and every person who walked through that terminal and took her shoes off at her front doorstep.

The first object of Malaysians’ outrage is, and should be, the North Korean government. As of this hour, the North Korean embassy is still harboring two suspects, refusing to cooperate with Malaysian authorities, and spewing flagrant lies to deflect blame. Obviously, I can’t speak for the Malaysian government, but if I could, I’d be making plans to close the embassy, to expel everyone with diplomatic immunity, and arrest any suspect without it.

But if Pyongyang deserves the brunt of our outrage, a second object of outrage should be the Malaysian government itself, which had long been warned in U.N. reports that Pyongyang’s agents on its soil were violating U.N. sanctions and the laws of other nations, yet did little to curtail them. Report after report identified Malaysia as the home base of North Korean spies, smugglers, arms dealers, slave traders, money launderers, and procurers of tools to make missiles. In allowing this activity to go on for years, the Malaysian government not only allowed North Korea to endanger Malaysians, but to endanger the citizens of other countries — and indeed, the security of the entire world.

Just last week, for example, Reuters reported on the contents of a leaked excerpt of the 2017 report by the U.N. Panel of Experts overseeing compliance with U.N. sanctions against North Korea, including an embargo on the sale or purchase by North Korea or arms and related materiel. The report described the interdiction last year of a shipment of North Korean weapons in transit to Eritrea, including 45 boxes of battlefield radios manufactured by the Malaysia-based company Glocom. According to the report, Glocom is a front for the Reconnaissance General Bureau of the Korean Workers’ Party, an entity designated by the U.N. Security Council, and the agency suspected of carrying out the Kuala Lumpur airport attack. Glocom still operates through this website marketing its wares. It does not list Glocom’s corporate officers, so I’ll let the Malaysian authorities investigate whether there are any financial, logistical, material, or personnel links between Glocom and the attackers. Overall, that seems likely to be the case.

[Update]

Reuters has a must-read story on Glocom filled with details about how it masked its ownership and control behind layers of front companies and shell companies, and tied itself to Malaysian man with influence in the country’s ruling party. They even made this org chart:

It notes that on one occasion in 2014, a female RGB agent named Ryang Su-nyo was caught at the Kuala Lumpur airport terminal while attempting to smuggle $450,000 in cash through customs (note again the North Korean preference for U.S. dollars). Ryang said she was transporting the money for the North Korean embassy, so the authorities decided not to press charges and gave the cash back. Here’s a newer website for Glocom. This wasn’t like any of the ham-handed, rinky-dink North Korean front companies I’ve seen before. This was a slick, sophisticated, and well-capitalized operation that raised funds for an agency with a long history of terrorism. If any of the money ran through the U.S. financial system, which seems likely, it would be worth exploring a material support charge.

[End update]

Then, there is the case of a 2007 shipment of missile parts seized en route from North Korea to Syria. That shipment, which transited through Dalian, China and Port Kelang, Malaysia contained, among other items, “solid double-base propellant … usable for gas generators to power Scud missile turbopumps.” When the shipment was seized, the blocks of explosive propellant that had passed through those busy ports were removed “for safety reasons.” (2012 report, Para. 57.)

Malaysia has long been a hub and meeting venue for North Korean arms smuggling. A shipment of tank parts bound for the Republic of Congo, and which was seized in South Africa in 2010, was routed through Dalian, China and Port Kelang. (2010 report, Para. 63.) In June 2009, Japanese authorities arrested three individuals for attempting to illegally export a magnetometer to Myanmar through Malaysia, “allegedly under the direction of a company known to be associated with illicit procurement for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea nuclear and military programmes.” (2010 report, Para. 51.) In 2012, Japan notified the panel of 2008 and 2009 shipments through Malaysia of machinery useful for producing missile gyroscopes. (2012 report, Para. 91.)

Malaysians have seen the tragic results of anti-aircraft missiles falling into the wrong hands. In 2012, a British court convicted arms smuggler Michael Ranger of attempting to sell Azerbaijan “between 70 and 100 man-portable air defence systems”* from Hesong Trading Company, a subsidiary of the notorious Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation, or KOMID, Pyongyang’s principal arms-dealing front company. Ranger “was in regular e-mail correspondence with” O Hak-Chol, a North Korean diplomat and Hesong representative whom Mr. Ranger met in a number of third countries, including Malaysia. (2013 report, Paras. 90-95 & FN.61.) As recently as 2015, KOMID representatives continued to transit through Malaysia. (2016 report, Para. 177.)

As of 2015, long after the Security Council designated North Korean shipper Ocean Maritime Management (OMM) for arms smuggling and required member states to close its offices and expel its representatives, OMM still maintained an office in Kuala Lumpur. (2015 report, Para. 128.) Until early 2015, a Malaysia-based North Korean agent named Pak In-su acted as an agent for the Mirae Shipping Company, a front for OMM.

Pak In-su’s primary employer was Malaysian Coal and Minerals Corporation (2015 report, Para. 143), a company that is almost certainly linked to Malaysia’s use of North Korean labor in its coal mines. What little we know of working conditions for North Korean expatriate laborers in Malaysia, and what we know of the conditions elsewhere, suggests that those conditions are tantamount to slavery. At least one North Korean miner in Malaysia was killed in an explosion in 2014. In the end, the regime in Pyongyang probably keeps most of the workers’ wages.

The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea estimates that 300 North Korean laborers are working in Malaysia. Partially as a result of such labor practices, Malaysia was recently downgraded to Tier 3 under the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which imposes penalties on legitimate Malaysian businesses that export to the United States. It also subjects Malaysia to sanctions risks, and the entire world to security risks. In a press release announcing its designation of the Mansudae Overseas Project group, for exportation of workers in violation of Executive Order 13722, the Treasury Department listed Malaysia as a market for Mansudae’s services, and said, “Some of the revenue generated by overseas laborers is used by the Munitions Industry Department, which was designated by the Department of State in August 2010 pursuant to E.O. 13382 for its support to North Korea’s WMD program.”

The procurement network that obtained parts and materials for North Korea’s missile programs has long had a strong presence in Malaysia. This presence has included entities that were designated by the U.N., including OMM, Mirae Shipping, and KOMID, and a U.N.-designated North Korean arms exporter known as Green Pine. In 2006 and 2010, the Korea Chonbok Trading Corporation, a front for Green Pine, purchased pressure transmitters from an unnamed European country for its long-range Unha-3 rockets. A payment invoice for the transactions lists one Ryong Jong-chol, a North Korean based in Malaysia, as the purchaser. (2015 report, Para. 195.) The payments, denominated in Euro, were routed through a Malaysian bank. According to the Panel, “Ryom was acting as the representative of Bank of East Land.” East Land was later designated by the U.S. Treasury Department (in 2011), the U.N. (in 2013), and the European Union (in 2013). (2016 report, Para. 186.) As of February 2016, the Malaysian government had still not responded to the Panel’s request for information about the transactions.

Malaysia’s tolerance of North Korea’s deceptive financial practices endangers Malaysian banks’ access to the global financial system. Malaysia is one of the few nations that still deals with North Korean banks, despite U.N. resolutions requiring “enhanced monitoring” of its financial activities (Para. 11), and warnings by the Financial Action Task Force to take “countermeasures” against North Korean money laundering and proliferation financing. In 2009, U.S. sanctions coordinator Philip Goldberg and Treasury official Daniel Glaser traveled to Malaysia and met with senior officials of the Malaysian government and central bank, regarding the implementation of U.N. financial sanctions under then-new UNSCR 1874. That visit followed reports that Malaysian banks were involved in transferring funds between North Korea and Burma for weapons-related transactions, in violation of a U.N. arms embargo. In 2013, Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen visited Malaysia to discuss its compliance with U.N. financial sanctions.

At least one major Malaysian Bank, Malayan Banking Berhad, was reported by the Panel in 2010 to maintain a correspondent relationship with, or to issue letters of credit for, North Korean banks. (2010 report, page 68.) It’s important to note, however, that the U.N. Security Council did not prohibit correspondent relationships with North Korean banks until 90 days after the adoption of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2270, on March 3, 2016. The Panel’s 2013 report listed the International Consortium Bank, a/k/a Hi-Fund International Bank as having been partially capitalized by and founded by the Malaysia Korea Partners Group of Companies (2013 report, page 132.)

ICB is a subsidiary of a North Korean front company called the MKP Group, which has the world’s most hilariously awful website, appears to have some ties to the Mansudae Overseas Project Group, also operates in Zambia, and really merits a post of its own one day. The existence of these banking relationships shows the importance of Malaysia as a secondary hub in Pyongyang’s financial network, which is often used for illicit purposes.

A recent investigation by Bangladeshi authorities into the smuggling of undeclared luxury goods, including LED televisions, tobacco, Rolls-Royces, and BMWs, has reportedly implicated the North Korean embassy in Malaysia. Under UNSCR 1718, North Korea is prohibited from importing luxury goods. In this case, the end destination for the goods isn’t clear, but whoever is behind the shipments conspired to evade Bangladesh import duties.

For the most part, the substantial network of North Korean arms smugglers, spies, and money launderers who operate in Malaysia merely endanger the citizens of other nations — most obviously in South Korea, but also in Syria and the Republic of Congo. In most cases, however, it’s impossible to predict who and where the next victims of North Korea’s activities will be. North Korea sells the world’s most dangerous weapons and technology to any buyer without regard to end users, victims, or consequences. As the VX attack at Kuala Lumpur illustrates, allowing North Korean agents to operate on one’s soil eventually endangers the host country’s citizens and interests, too. The question that the Malaysian people and government should be asking is whether the benefits of their financial and commercial ties to North Korea are really worth those risks.

~   ~   ~

* North Korea has been caught selling MANPADS before. One shipment of them was seized in Bangkok in 2010, on its way to Iran’s terrorist clients. In 2010, Yi Qing Chen was convicted of attempting to smuggle Chinese-made QM-2 man-portable surface-to-air missiles into the United States in 2005.  In 2011, he was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The QM-2 is a Chinese copy of the Russian Igla-1, or SAM-18.

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N. Korea just killed a guy with one of the WMDs that caused us to invade Iraq … in a crowded airport terminal, in a friendly nation.

Last night, Malaysian police revealed that Kim Jong-nam’s killers murdered him with VX, the deadliest of the nerve agents. I had hypothesized before that the killers almost certainly acted on orders from His Porcine Majesty. Saddam Hussein’s suspected possession of stockpiles of VX was at the core of our justification for invading Iraq. This time, the case doesn’t rely on grainy satellite photos or shadowy, unnamed sources. (And this time, an invasion is also the wrong answer to the problem; the right answer is a combination of financial constriction, the use of diplomacy to isolate Pyongyang, and political subversion, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) Here, in no particular sequence, are some assorted thoughts on what we’ve learned since yesterday, and what could happen next.

~   ~   ~

The next time someone tells you that human rights are a side issue or a distraction from more important issues, please punch that person in the nose.

~   ~   ~

The revelation that North Korea used VX has caused justifiable outrage in Malaysia and around the world. There were many Malaysians studying accounting, finance, and agriculture where I attended law school. All of them impressed me deeply with their maturity, wisdom, and strict moral values. I was most recently reminded of this when Kenneth Sng, a student from Singapore (which is culturally similar to Malaysia and separated from it at the end of British colonial rule) gave the introduction at a Republican debate last October.

As a student, I formed close friendships with some of the Malaysians. This is a conservative society that takes law, public order, public safety, and integrity very seriously. That attitude isn’t just a function of the state’s authoritarianism or a remnant of the British legal tradition, the common ancestor of our own legal system. It is a necessity for keeping the peace in a society with a history of ethnic and religious conflict. As Sumisha Naidu documents on her Twitter feed (keep scrolling), this has caused public outrage and protests in Malaysia. Members of a youth group delivered a protest letter to the North Korean embassy. There’s now a safety scare about the use of the terminal. It’s hard to believe that this incident will pass without serious damage to the relationship between North Korea and Malaysia. It could end with the deportation of a large number of slave laborers and money launderers.

~   ~   ~

How did the North Koreans get the VX into Malaysia? Judging by reports that the police (1) arrested a North Korean chemist and (2) later found a stockpile of chemicals in a condo, I’d guess they produced it locally. The other possibility being discussed is that they smuggled it in a diplomatic pouch, though this seems less likely to me.

~   ~   ~

Not surprisingly, I’ve gotten a lot of questions recently about the legal standard for putting North Korea back on the list of state sponsors of terrorism. By the time you read this, I’ll be at work, so I’d refer any questions to my long-form report, or this post, which predicted that North Korea would go back on the list sometime between Groundhog Day and Memorial Day. At this point, it wouldn’t surprise me if that happened before 5 p.m. today. In the latter post, I noted that the criteria in Section 6(j) of the Export Administration Act are so loose that Donald Trump could re-designate North Korea with a retweet. So, hold my beer and watch this!

[Retweet at your own risk, and mine.]

Both Congress and the South Koreans are becoming increasingly vocal in calling for a redesignation of North Korea. So would a redesignation do anything? Yes, it would, as I explained here, mainly by invoking the financial transaction licensing requirements in 31 C.F.R. Part 596, which are far stricter than those in the North Korea Sanctions Regulations at 31 C.F.R. Part 510. It would also lift North Korea’s sovereign immunity from civil liability for terrorist acts. Granted, the passage of the NKSPEA preempted some of the consequences of a re-listing, but we couldn’t get all of them done at once. Any policymakers looking for tougher options should start with Ted Cruz’s letter to Steve Mnuchin. If that’s still not enough for you, e-mail me.

~   ~   ~

For days, theories swirled that the poison was anthrax, which made no sense to me, given that anthrax has an incubation period of at least a day. You will note (because I can’t help reminding you) that in Wednesday’s post, I correctly predicted that the poison would probably turn out to be some kind of nerve agent. I derived this from the fact that the poison was applied to, and absorbed through, the victim’s skin, and the symptoms that followed: blurred vision, eye pain, headache, seizures, and death within minutes. (My long-term memory being better than my short-term memory, I recalled most of these symptoms from my Army years as the soldier’s cue to administer atropine.) All of the nerve agents have similar symptoms, so I didn’t venture a guess as to which one was used.

~   ~   ~

The CDC classifies VX as a persistent chemical agent. It takes several days to break down, and even one droplet can kill. To use such a deadly chemical in an airport terminal crowded with civilians — with babies and little children who crawl on floors and put their mouths on armrests, with young mothers who rolled their suitcases into the restrooms the assassins used — is breathtakingly contemptuous of human life and public safety in a friendly nation. It would not surprise me at all if reports began to emerge that other people who traveled through that terminal and touched contaminated sinks, handrails, or furniture also experienced symptoms of exposure.

There are reports that the two attackers slimed Kim Jong-nam with their bare hands. Why didn’t that kill them, too? According to the CDC, “any visible VX liquid contact on the skin, unless washed off immediately, would be lethal.” (Emphasis mine.) At least one of the women did wash her hands immediately after the attack.

Malaysian police said one of the women also “suffered [the] effects” of VX exposure and was vomiting after the attack. Initial reports said that one of the women wore a glove, but the Washington Post’s Anna Fifield says that isn’t so. Because VX can be a binary compound formed by mixing two separately inert chemicals, it’s also possible that each of the two women applied one of those chemicals.


Another possibility is that the North Koreans who plotted and coolly observed all of this from a nearby restaurant may well have assumed (and preferred) that the poison would kill them. The North Koreans made careful preparations for the escape of their own men, and no apparent plans for the escape of the two women.

~   ~   ~

Maybe the North Koreans were sure they wouldn’t get caught. For whatever reason, they seemingly gave no attention to concocting a plausible cover story. The attack itself went off without a hitch, but because it was needlessly and hopelessly elaborate, the getaway fell apart. By using a persistent chemical agent, they also raised the risk that that police would identify the agent, the composition of which suggests more sophistication than a non-state actor would ordinarily possess. The North Koreans aren’t very good at judging foreign reaction to their outrages. Perhaps history has taught them that the reaction will always be a lot of words amounting to nothing. Perhaps His Porcine Majesty’s advisors are afraid to caution him or tell him no. Still, I can’t imagine they expected their plot to be exposed as quickly and publicly as it was.

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Sanctions Diplomacy: Yesterday Uganda, today Namibia, tomorrow Cambodia

Earlier this week, when a senior Namibian official who had defended her government’s military cooperation with North Korea showed up in Pyongyang, I conceded that she could be there to terminate that cooperation, but didn’t assess that possibility as very likely. But yesterday, the Namibian government announced it was ending its joint projects with North Korea, including a North Korean-run arms factory, to comply with new U.N. sanctions:

“The Government of the Republic of Namibia, in fulfilling her international obligations to abide by UN Security resolutions, has decided to terminate the services of KOMID and MOP in Namibia, for as long as the UN Security Council sanctions against the DPRK are in place,” the statement read. [NK News, Hamish Macdonald]

See also Reuters and Namibia’s own New Era Newspaper. Namibia’s announcement follows Uganda’s termination of its contracts with North Korea to train its police forces.

Presumably, this is the work of good diplomacy by someone, although I couldn’t tell you who. Africa had become an important arms market for North Korea in recent years — and continues to be —  but with the Namibian announcement, it’s clear that diplomatic efforts to get African countries to terminate their military relations with North Korea are gaining traction. Seoul has publicized its efforts — including outreach to Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania — but Washington hasn’t publicized its own, perhaps for perfectly sound reasons, and perhaps because they’re non-existent.

One point that comes through clearly is that the threat of secondary sanctions is a part of why countries that ignored U.N. sanctions against North Korea for years are enforcing them now. Just look what I found in my visitors’ log after I first posted about the sanctions against Namibia that would be mandatory under the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act:

[Now that I have your undivided attention ….]

In retrospect, the Namibian official’s visit to Pyongyang was probably meant to express regret at the termination of mil-mil cooperation with North Korea, and to express Namibia’s desire to maintain good relations anyway. That is, Namibia complied with U.N. sanctions reluctantly, but it still complied. Sometimes, the diplomat’s velvet glove works better with a regulator’s iron fist. So, to the anonymous diplomat who (I assume) presented that stark choice to the Namibian government, you may redeem a copy of this post for the beverage of your choice.

This isn’t the full extent of the public reporting on Seoul’s diplomatic offensive against Pyongyang’s arms dealers. Its diplomats have recently lobbied the governments of the EU, France, Bulgaria, and Russia. This week’s visit by a large, high-level delegation of South Korean diplomats to Laos and Cambodia could be even more critical.

“During the talks with senior officials, (Hwang) plans to request cooperation in dealing with North Korea’s nuclear issues, including efforts to push for the implementation of a United Nations Security Council resolution,” according to the ministry statement. [Yonhap]

The diplomats will come bearing gifts.

“Hwang will meet with Cambodia and Laos’s senior defense officials and discuss bilateral defense cooperation,” the ministry said in a press release.

Hwang is the highest ranking South Korean defense ministry official ever to visit the two countries. The delegation comprises working-level officials from Cheong Wa Dae, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as well as the Ministry of National Defense.

During his visit, Hwang will also make a courtesy call to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“In the talks with senior officials, Hwang plans to request cooperation in dealing with the North Korean nuclear issue, including efforts to push for the implementation of UNSC resolutions,” the ministry said.

Hwang will also meet with senior defense officials in Laos to discuss a wide range of issues, including cooperation in demining, according to the ministry. [Korea Times]

Both countries, with their lax and corrupt regulatory environments, have become key links in North Korea’s access to global shipping and finance. The strange North Korean happenings in Cambodia include the recent deaths of two North Korean doctors, the arrests of 15 North Koreans in Phnom Penh for running an illegal gambling website, the hosting of North Korean restaurants that are suspected havens for money laundering, and many reports of North Korean ships flying the Cambodian flag, a practice that was recently banned by UNSCR 2270. If Cambodia doesn’t fall into line with U.N. sanctions, the U.S. should impose sanctions against its shipping registries, and then perhaps some of its banks, under section 104(a) of the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act. Laos, with its record of repatriating North Korean refugees, should lose its tier status under the Trafficking Victims’ Protection Act.

Previously, President Obama had urged Vietnam, a long-time North Korean arms client, to implement new U.N. sanctions, which will impact its exports to U.S. markets.

The news is not entirely good. For example, almost five months after the U.N. Panel of Experts named dozens of North Korean operatives, front companies, and third-country enablers, the Treasury Department hasn’t designated a single North Korean target since March 15th. I’m frustrated by the fact that, contrary to rumors I’d heard, there are still no human rights designations of North Korean officials, weeks after a statutory deadline to name names under section 304 and apply designations under section 104(a)(5).

All that is deeply disappointing and may soon draw unwanted attention from Congress, but at least we can say that the results of our progressive diplomacy are promising. As our Ambassador in Seoul, Mark Lippert, has said, sanctions enforcement is a long diplomatic game. Fortunately, North Korea’s friends tend to be poor countries, tied to Pyongyang by little more than fading Cold War memories and convenience. With continued effort and patience, those ties can be undone, and we’ll continue to see good results.

~   ~   ~

Afterthought: Perhaps I’ve been too quick to assume that the Namibian government’s actions will follow its words. I suppose the wiser course is to keep watching for signs that the Namibian government is really doing this. Nor should we let it off the hook for doing everything that UNSCR 2270 requires — expel KOMID’s representatives, freeze its property, and dispose of it.

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Treasury blocks assets of North Korea’s ambassador to Burma

Although I suppose it’s probably a complete coincidence that Treasury finally blocked the assets of four North Korean proliferators in Burma last Friday, I’d like to think it stung a bit when, a few weeks ago, at this conference at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, I said this:

Here’s a link to Treasury’s announcement of the designation of four individual North Koreans, including Pyongyang’s Ambassador to Burma:

HWANG, Su Man (a.k.a. HWANG, Kyong Nam); DOB 06 Apr 1955; nationality Korea, North; Passport 472220033 (Korea, North) (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

KIM, Kwang Hyok, Burma; DOB 20 Apr 1970; nationality Korea, North; Passport 654210025 (Korea, North); Korean Mining Development Trading Corporation Representative in Burma (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

KIM, Sok Chol, Burma; DOB 08 May 1955; nationality Korea, North; Passport 472310082; North Korean Ambassador to Burma (individual) [DPRK2].

RI, Chong Chol (a.k.a. RI, Jong Chol); DOB 12 Apr 1970; Passport 199110092 (Korea, North) expires 17 Mar 2014; alt. Passport 472220503 (Korea, North) expires 06 Jun 2018; alt. Passport 654220197 (Korea, North) expires 07 May 2019 (individual) [DPRK2] (Linked To: KOREA MINING DEVELOPMENT TRADING CORPORATION).

The bracketed “DPRK2” means the designations were under the potentially sweeping but still barely used new Executive Order 13687, which allows Treasury to designate any North Korean government or ruling party official, entity, or enabler. This means Treasury doesn’t have to publish detailed reasons for its designations. According to GAO, this should make the process of designating North Korean entities much easier, although we’ve seen relatively little action from Treasury since the order was signed on January 2nd, shortly after President Obama blamed Pyongyang for the Sony hack and cyberterrorist threat.

Treasury’s announcement doesn’t give a specific reason for the designations, but does say that the targets are linked to the Korea Mining Development Corporation (KOMID), which has been designated for WMD proliferation since the George W. Bush administration. Treasury also designated a North Korean trading company in Egypt.

EKO DEVELOPMENT AND INVESTMENT COMPANY (a.k.a. EKO DEVELOPMENT & INVESTMENT FOOD COMPANY; a.k.a. EKO IMPORT AND EXPORT COMPANY), 35 St. Abd al-Aziz al-Sud, al-Manial, Cairo, Egypt [DPRK2].

According to Yonhap, EKO is “a North Korean government entity located in Egypt,” and was designated “for helping KOMID market North Korean weapons systems to foreign countries.” You can find references to similarly named entities through a Google search.

“Today’s action is designed to counter North Korea’s attempts to circumvent U.S. and United Nations (UN) sanctions, as well as maintain the effectiveness of U.S. sanctions on individuals and entities that are linked to the North Korean Government’s weapons of mass destruction procurement network,” the department said. [Yonhap]

Let’s start by accentuating the positive. The designation of a sitting ambassador represents a notable and long-overdue escalation in Treasury’s designations.

The Ambassador was reportedly paid by the sanctioned DPRK company and arranged meetings on their behalf.

“‘The designation of the DPRK Ambassador to Burma is unprecedented. It is a strong signal to the new Burmese government that the US has persistent concerns about the relationship between North Korea and the country’s military which it expects to be promptly addressed,” Andrea Berger of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) told NK News.

“The January EO is much broader in scope and therefore involves a different standard of evidence: it is only necessary to demonstrate that a person is a North Korean official or has materially assisted the North Korean government. There is no doubt that the Ambassador meets these criteria,” Berger added. [NK News, Leo Byrne]

Ordinarily, the Vienna Convention protects the activities of diplomats as inviolable. North Korea’s abuse of these protections, however, is so widely acknowledged that even the U.N. Security Council’s latest North Korea sanctions resolution calls for the “targeting the illicit activities of diplomatic personnel,” expresses concern that Pyongyang “is abusing the privileges and immunities accorded under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic and Consular Relations,” and calls on member states “to exercise enhanced vigilance over DPRK diplomatic personnel so as to prevent such individuals from contributing to the DPRK’s nuclear or ballistic missile programmes, or other activities prohibited by” U.N. resolutions. By itself, however, the designation of four individuals and one trading company represents a small dent in a global network.

“North Korea’s continued violation of international law and its commitment to the proliferation of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction pose a serious threat to the United States and to global peace and security,” Acting Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam J. Szubin said in the statement.

“Today’s designations underscore our ongoing efforts to obstruct the flow of funds used to augment North Korea’s nuclear capabilities,” he said. 

[Yonhap]

To get an idea of what a serious and sustained sanctions enforcement program would look like, you need look no further than Treasury’s own sanctions search tool, which reveals that there are no less than eleven sanctions programs dedicated exclusively to Iran, compared to two dedicated to North Korea. The number of designations is even more telling. Hold down your “control” key and click “561List” (signifying 31 C.F.R. Part 561), EO13622 (signifying the executive order of the same number), EO13645, FSE-IR, HRIT-IR, IFSR, IRAN, IRAN-HR (human rights), IRAN-TRA (under this statute), IRGC (Iran Revolutionary Guards Council), and ISA. You should get 845 results. Because these programs still exclude designations under other sanctions programs, such as “NPWMD” (for WMD proliferation) and “SDGT” (for terrorism), it’s entirely possible that Treasury has designated more than 1,000 Iranian and Iranian-linked entities, compared to around 90 in North Korea’s case. 

An effective sanctions program will require years of sustained and determined effort, and the political will to designate North Korea’s banks, higher-level ministries, senior officials, and third-country enablers. Such an effort begins by requiring all transactions with the North Korean government to be licensed by OFAC, which is one way Treasury can begin to gather financial intelligence on where North Korea’s money is, and how it moves. As of now, however, there’s no such comprehensive requirement. The most optimistic way to view this is as a small but welcome start.

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Dealing with Khmer and North Korean Killers

As the first sentence is finally handed out to a former member of the Khmer Rouge regime, it reminds us of a human rights catastrophe still in progress.

Admittedly, I don’t know much about the history of Cambodia, including the nightmare under the Khmer Rouge, but this is a reminder that someday (may it be very soon), decisions made today will determine the fate of many now running the regime in North Korea.

The details and issues addressed in South Korea’s pending North Korean Human Rights Act* will help shape how the process attempting to achieve some sort of justice plays out and which SK government agencies will be responsible for what between now and then (eg, properly interviewing, recording, and storing witness testimony for later prosecution). For a discussion of some of the “details and issues”, see this post from last year.

Obviously, other factors (how the regime falls and neighboring countries’ roles in that and the aftermath) will be involved in what happens to the perpetrators of mass human rights violations in the North, but to the extent it has a say, South Korea, needs to awaken from its apathy now to be ready later.

If there ever is an attempted reunification, as Vitit Muntarbhorn said on this very topic at the PSCORE seminar this spring, “If you don’t know the truth, you cannot heal properly.“ (this quote came at 4:42, but he starts talking about the NKHR bill around 1:36)

Let us hope the North Korean people won’t have to wait 30 years after liberation for their shot in court!

*For those of you in Seoul, there will be a seminar Wednesday on the pending NKHR bill:

A Second Discussion on North Korean Issues and Policy

Subject: How Shall We Proceed with the NK Human Rights Bill?
When: Wed., July 28th, 2-4pm
Where: National Assembly — Constitutional Memorial Hall, 2nd Floor, Large Lecture Hall (헌정기념관 2층대강당)
Sponsored by: National Assemly Human Rights Forum and the Association of NK Human Rights Organizations (ANKHRO)
북한인권문제정책협의회 제2차 북한인권토론회

주제: 북한인권법 어떻게 할 것인가?
주최: 국회인권포럼 ,북한인권단체연합회
일시: 7월 28일(수) 오후2시~4시
장소: 국회의사당 헌정기념관 2층대강당

☞ 오시는 길
[9호선 국회의사당역 하차] 1번, 5번 출구로 나와 도보 이용
[5호선 여의도역 하차] 5번 출구, 버스 162, 261, 262, 461번
[1호선 대방역] 360, 363번 버스 이용
[1호선 영등포역] 5615, 5618번 버스 이용

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The LA Times on a Mission along SE Asia’s Underground Railroad

As an active member of Justice for North Korea, maybe I’m a bit biased, but I highly recommend this one.

John Glionna of the Los Angeles Times has the story behind the 9 refugees who successfully received asylum in the Danish Embassy in Hanoi in late September and now are safely in South Korea.  There also is a bit of an update on the 5 refugees who were caught by the Chinese government at the border.

Here’s the link:  Aiding North Korea defectors: A high-stakes spy mission.

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Nine Refugees Leave Danish Embassy in Hanoi for Seoul

“The nine North Koreans left the Danish embassy this morning and they are now at Noi Bai International Airport checking in before flying to Singapore and then Seoul,” the Vietnamese diplomatic source told AFP, asking not to be named. [….]

The nine entered the Danish compound on September 24 hoping to reach South Korea, Kim Sang-Hun, an activist who said his group helped them reach the embassy, told AFP earlier. [AFP]

That must be the same Kim Sang Hun whom I met in Washington just two weeks ago. Incidentally, I still haven’t found the Jeung-San prison, just one vaguely possible site.

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Yesterday Syria, Today Burma, Tomorrow Al Qaeda

The “experts” told us that North Korea would have no reason to threaten us if we’d only “engage,” talk, and appease them.  We did, and they sold Syria a nuclear reactor anyway.  Others say we should just ignore them.  We did, and they’re selling Burma a uranium enrichment program:

The two defectors whose briefings have created such alarm are both regarded as credible sources. One was an officer with a secret nuclear battalion in the Burmese army who was sent to Moscow for two years’ training. He was part of a nuclear programme which planned to train 1,000 Burmese. “You don’t need 1,000 people in the fuel cycle or to run a nuclear reactor. It’s obvious there is much more going on,” he said.

The other is a former executive of the regime’s leading business partner, Htoo Trading, who handled nuclear contracts with Russia and North Korea.  [….]

Professor Ball and Mr Thornton reported that the army defector claimed that there were more than five North Koreans working at the Thabeik Kyin uranium processing plant in Burma and that the country was providing yellowcake ““ partially refined uranium ““ to both Iran and North Korea.  [The Independent]

Despite the years of denials by some that North Korea’s uranium enrichment program was a potential danger to us, North Korea is now in a position to reproliferate that technology and to outsource parts of it that skeptics cited as evidence that North Korea had no large-scale enrichment program.  How many centrifuges could Burma’s tunnels hold?

The authors concluded that the illicit nuclear co-operation was based on a trade of locally refined uranium from Burma to North Korea in return for technological expertise.

What is missing in the nuclear chain at the moment is a plutonium reprocessing plant, but according to the army defector, one was being planned at Naung Laing in northern Burma, parallel to a civilian reactor which is already under construction with Russian help.

But of course, the North Koreans have one of those.  The North Korean and Burmese nuclear programs could well have been designed to work in synergy with one another.

The secret complex would be hidden in caves tunnelled into a nearby mountain. Once Burma had its own plutonium reprocessing plant, it could produce 8kg of weapons-grade plutonium-239 a year, enough to build one nuclear bomb every 12 months.

If the testimony of the two defectors proves to be correct, the secret reactor could be operational by 2014, The Herald reported.

And thus two groups of American analysts, collectively comprising an overwhelming majority of so-called expert opinion, are both proven demonstrably wrong in their prescriptions for dealing with North Korea’s real threat to us — nuclear proliferation.  All we can wonder at this point is who else they’d sell to if some wahhabi oil sheikh can wire his zakaat money to Pakistan.

North Korea will proliferate nuclear technology and weapons as long as there is a North Korea.  North Korea considers itself to be at war with us.  Because it can’t attack us directly or conventionally, this is the means it chooses.  What responsible recourse but to do what we can to hasten the regime’s extinction?

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Burmese Dissidents Worry About Junta’s Purchases of North Korean Weapons

The Burmese diaspora has become one of our best sources of information:

One of the first signs of warming relations was a barter agreement between the two countries that lasted from 2000 to 2006 and saw Burma receive between 12 and 16 M-46 field guns and as many as 20 million rounds of 7.62 mm ammunition from North Korea, according to defense analyst Andrew Selth of Griffith University in Australia. In exchange, Burma bartered food and rice.  [….]
The two countries formally re-established diplomatic relations in April 2007. After that, the North Korean ship the Kang Nam — the same ship that recently turned away from Burma after being followed by the U.S. navy — made a trip to Burma’s Thilawa port. Western defense analysts concluded that the ship carried conventional weapons and missiles to Burma.

This laid the ground for the MoU signed in November, when Shwe Mann, the regime’s third-most powerful figure, made a secret visit to North Korea, according to the leaked report. Shwe Mann is the chief of staff of the army, navy and air force, and the coordinator of Special Operations. He spent seven days in Pyongyang, traveling via China. His 17-member delegation received a tour around Pyongyang and Myohyang, where secret tunnels have been built into mountains to shelter aircraft, missiles, tanks and nuclear and chemical weapons.  [Aung Zaw, WSJ]

Aung Zaw is the founder of The Irrawaddy, which has a regular feature that tracks the Burma-North Korea proliferation story closely.  The entire WSJ piece is well worth reading.  More on those Burmese tunnels here, and on military cooperation between Burma and North Korea here.

Related:   There’s video of the 1983 Rangoon bombing up on YouTube.  It may seem a frivolous thing to say in this context, but I thought the scenes of Seoul in the 80’s were an interesting contrast.  It’s amazing how much things changed in just 15 years, when I first arrived there.

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Rising Traffic on the Underground Railroad

NOW THAT THE OLYMPICS ARE OVER, the flow of North Korean defectors into Thailand is on the rise once again.

Thai police statistics quoted by the Japanese daily show a mere 140 North Koreans arrested there between January and August last year. But in the period from September to November after the Beijing Olympics, 250 North Koreans were arrested in 14 areas in northern and northeastern Thailand bordering Burma and Laos.

The number of North Koreans arrested in December and January this year is not known yet, but the paper said a large number of North Korean entered Thailand around the Lunar New Year’s Day, on Jan. 26.

“From January until days before the Olympics began last year, it was difficult for North Korean defectors to move around easily as Chinese authorities had intensified patrols,” it said. “As China has relaxed vigilance after the Olympics, the number of North Korean defectors arriving in Thailand will likely reach 1,000 a year as before.” [Chosun Ilbo]

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Conscience in Unlikely Places

The Myanmar junta released 19 North Korean defectors into Thailand on Wednesday following their arrest in December, a diplomat said Thursday. The 19 North Koreans, including 15 women and a 7-year-old boy, were arrested at the Myanmar-Thai border town of Tarchilek on Dec. 2 while trying to cross into Thailand en route to South Korea, the same source said. [Kyodo News]

It’s hard to understand why that regime, with its bizarre reliance on numerology, does anything. I suspect this doesn’t mean the end of the regime machine-gunning dissident monks. But even the Nazis had the Abwehr. Maybe conscience can persist — for a few — in even the most inhospitable places.

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LiNK: S. Korea Is Speeding Up Admissions of Refugees in Thailand

This came to me  by e-mail a few days ago,  not from LiNK, but from Human Rights Without Frontiers,  another NGO that works with them  to assist North Korean refugees:

Dear Friends, Thank you all for stepping up and voicing your concern for the welfare of North Korean refugees in Thailand. Last month, on April 23, I traveled to Bangkok and met with officials at the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs, expressing all of our concern over the treatment and processing of North Korean refugees, and personally delivered the attached final letter. We have not been able to send updates thus far because of the sensitive nature of the cases in question, but I am pleased to finally be able to deliver some news. Your letter, in conjunction with congressional inquiries from members of both the House and Senate, helped to break through serious delays, and the refugees our organization is supporting have gained a renewed sense of hope and optimism. Processing of their cases has sped up to a deliberate pace on the American side, and the Thai government has pledged active facilitation and cooperation of interviews and exit visas. We are seeing these commitments bear fruit as refugees are seeing interviews, background checks and status changes in real-time. North Korean refugees bound for the Republic of Korea have also been seeing exponentially-increased rates of transit and exceptionally-quick approval times for exit visas.

We are making significant progress, and for that we thank you. It is often difficult to see the fruits of petitions and letters, but in this case, your signature helped to bring added pressure to resolve a humanitarian crisis that was growing increasingly desperate and difficult. We will continue to stay in touch with news of similar situations in the future!

Adrian Hong
Executive Director

That represents a vast improvement in matters since March, when Thai detention centers were overcrowded with refugees South Korea wasn’t prepared to accept.

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North Korea Violates UNSCR 1718 Again

The resolution, passed after North Korea’s diplomatically successful and technologically marginal nuclear test, prohibits the North from trading in major weapons systems. Reuters reports that for the last year, since North Korea restored diplomatic relations with Burma, North Korea has been selling its fellow tyrannical ChiCom satellite rocket launchers of “the same type as those deployed near the demilitarised zone.”

It’s now fodder for popular satire that Kim Jong Il doesn’t really care what the U.N. prohibits, but still, for some reason, I feel compelled to keep track of this stuff.

North Korea probably deploys several types of MRL systems along the DMZ, but the kind we tend to worry the most about are its 240-milimeter rockets, which can range the northern half of the Seoul metropolitan area, and which are thought to be capable of carrying chemical and biological weapons and a particularly nasty type of projectile called a “fuel air explosive,” a/k/a the poor man’s atomic bomb. This video will give you a good idea of what they can do to reinforced concrete buildings and armored vehicles.

Key to harnessing an FAE’s full destructive potential is the atomization and dissipation of the vapor cloud. Earlier Russian FAE’s were not fully effective when used in Chechnya for that reason. Intel analysts would know better than me how effective North Korea’s FAE’s may be. Most of North Korea’s rocket launchers are mounted on multiple rocket launchers that sit in underground bunkers until they pop out to launch (collectively) hundreds of rounds a minute, a much higher rate of fire than tube artillery. By maintaining an export market, the North Koreans can also afford to produce spare parts and replacements for their own systems.

Do you suppose the Burmese regime really needs these things to slaughter monks? The question that intrigues me even more is how the Burmese are paying Kim Jong Il. If we can find a bank and a spine, there’s a way to attach those assets.

Update: I guessed right. They were 240-milimeter rockets after all. The deal was arranged through a trading company in Singapore, which presumably has a bank account with records of the money transfers. Nearly all countries belong to something known as the Financial Action Task Force and have money laundering laws requiring due diligence in reporting suspicious transactions. It’s very hard to do something like this without breaking some country’s money laundering laws, unless the authorities are asleep. Singapore would not seem to be the sort of place that would overlook or tolerate money laundering.

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N. Korean Refugees Arrested in Thailand

Two Thais have been arrested for allegedly helping 14 North Koreans to illegally enter Thailand’s northern border town Chiang Saen, local police said Monday. Nikom Chaikul, 36, was arrested last Thursday when he was driving a minibus carrying eight North Koreans — four men and four women aged 19 to 66 — heading to Chiang Saen, according to marine police in Chiang Saen. [Kyodo]

The fourteen North Koreans were charged with illegal entry. President Lee’s rhetoric about refugees and human rights is about to face its first test.

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House passes Burma sanctions bill

I had given up on the idea that this would ever happen.  Kudos for Tom Lantos:

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill on Tuesday blocking imports of Myanmar rubies and removing tax credits for U.S. firms investing in the military-ruled Southeast Asian country.

The Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, drafted after Myanmar’s suppression of pro-democracy protests in September, was approved as the junta rejected a U.N. report putting the death toll from that crackdown at 31.

The legislation, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos, bans the import of Myanmar gems into the United States, freezes the assets of the country’s leaders and stops the former Burma from using U.S. financial institutions via third countries to launder funds of its leaders or close relatives.

His amendment to U.S. trade sanctions imposed in 2003 also targets the sale in America of rubies routed through China, India and Thailand to circumvent curbs on trade with Myanmar.

The bill, which must be approved by the U.S. Senate and signed into law by President George W. Bush, also would stop the U.S. oil major Chevron Corp from taking tax deductions on its investment in Myanmar’s Yadana natural gas field.  [Reuters, Paul Eckert]  

I’m not sure what effect those sanctions will have.  We’ve learned from the Banco Delta experience that the way to really hurt  the  wealthy  oligarchy  of an  isolated  nation is to cut off its access to international finance, which this bill   does to at least some  extent.  I haven’t had time to read the all-important money-laundering sanctions, so I’ll reserve judgment for now. 

The  loss of Chevron’s tax deduction will probably just mean that Total Fina Elf or Lukoil will take over that part of it.  The gem sanctions may hit isolated parts of the Burmese economy, but won’t bring it down.   Let’s hope that Congress will see these sanctions as a work in progress and look for ways to improve them.

Thanks to a reader for forwarding.

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