Top NSA official attributes attempted $1B bank heist to North Korean hackers

The story of the Bangladesh Bank/SWIFT heist has gotten much more interesting of late. Now, not only do we have a senior U.S. intelligence official attributing it to a government, we learn that the North Koreans tried to steal nearly ….

A senior National Security Agency official appeared to confirm that North Korean computer hackers were behind a multi-million dollar heist targeting Bangladesh’s central bank last year.

Computer hackers attempted to steal $951 million, but only got away with $81 million, some of which was later recovered. After the theft, security firms quickly pointed the finger at North Korea. Other experts disputed that finding. But on Tuesday, NSA Deputy Director Rick Ledgett appeared to say North Korea was the culprit during a cryptic exchange at a Washington forum.

Speaking at an Aspen Institute roundtable, Ledgett pointed out that private sector researchers had linked the digital break-in in Bangladesh to the 2014 hack on Sony Pictures, which the U.S. government attributed to Pyongyang.

“If that linkage from the Sony actors to the Bangladeshi bank actors is accurate — that means that a nation state is robbing banks,” Ledgett said. “That’s a big deal.” [Foreign Policy]

To be clear, this isn’t U.S. government attribution, and there’s no explanation here of why Ledgett thinks the North Koreans were behind the theft, but Ledgett is described as a “30-year veteran” of the NSA who is due to retire later this year. Such a person wouldn’t ordinarily make that statement unless (1) he believed it, and (2) he was fairly certain the agency management was OK with him saying it in a public forum. In fact,  I think we’re all going to be hearing much more about why people think North Korea is now the only government that robs banks. What I’m also hoping we’ll find out is what bank accounts the money ended up in.

By attacking a bank and making off with large sums of money, North Korea can evade sanctions and obtain foreign currency, but so far, that effort has not delivered serious dividends for Pyongyang.

North Korea: tactically brilliant and strategically moronic since 1948. By the way, don’t expect SWIFT to publicly admit that its software was hacked. Standard behavior for any corporate victim of a cyberattack is to refuse to comment, or even to deny. They’re more worried about their reputations for systems security than in helping to punish hackers and hold them accountable. In most cases, hackers don’t have reputations to protect. When the hacker is a government, however, it has far more to lose by being accused of bank fraud.

Continue Reading

North Korean security forces now asking politely for protection money

Yet more reports are validating that, since the recent ouster of State Security Minister Kim Won-hong for “human rights violations” and other reasons, something has changed (at least for now) in the way North Korea’s internal security forces are operating:

Following orders from Kim Jong Un for the Ministry of State Security (MSS) to refrain from violating human rights, its personnel have begun to shy away from their characteristic extortionist behavior during their interactions with residents. This appears to be an attempt to balance their effectiveness in garnering bribes from residents while avoiding punishment from above.

A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on March 14 that MSS officials have eased up on heavy-handed behavior, most noticeably amongst those with regional areas under their jurisdiction.

A source in North Hamgyong Province added, “Even until early this year, security agents used to threaten people unless they paid bribes, but these incidents have recently been in decline. The change seems to have been influenced by Kim Jong Un’s instructions, but it is unclear how long will it continue.” [Daily NK]

The reports suggest several interesting things. First, MSS officers aren’t being paid enough to support themselves without shaking down citizens. That means the pursuit and blocking of the revenue that supports the MSS can further damage North Korea’s internal control and further strain relations between the state and its subjects.

Second, the state is more afraid of the people than many of us had assumed. Why else would it order the MSS to stop shaking citizens down? Now, citizens who are used to being extorted are “surprised to see MSS officials pleading with them for money instead of threatening them like they used to.” The Daily NK‘s sources don’t think this change will last, but it’s still significant that they think this:

“Recent measures against the MSS, including the purge of Kim Won Hong and the execution of high-ranking officials, are just political posturing to appease the residents. The MSS is likely to have its power restored soon and the agents will return to their old ways again,” he said.

That validates my first theory of Kim Won-hong as scapegoat, a la Yezhov. Another theory, sourced to a think tank run by South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, is that Kim was done in by his rivalry with Choe Ryong-hae, who sabotaged him to get revenge for his own punishment by being sent to the fields for a few months.

I’m convinced that we’ve underestimated the power of talking to the North Korean people about human rights. No wonder the regime is so furious when we do it. We underestimate the regime’s fear of its poorest classes. We also underestimate the connection between money and internal control in North Korea. The right strategy isn’t to talk about human rights or target the regime with sanctions. It’s both strategies pursued in coordination. These surprising reports give us small hope that we can present Pyongyang’s intrigue-riven elites with a stark choice: to change, or to perish.

Our most urgent diplomatic priority this year will be to prevent Moon Jae-in from relieving Pyongyang of that choice, using any leverage at our disposal.

Continue Reading

Ted Cruz introduces Senate bill to re-list N. Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism

Ted Cruz, who has emerged as a leading advocate for a harder line against North Korea, has introduced a Senate companion bill to Rep. Ted Poe’s bill, calling for North Korea’s re-listing as a state sponsor of terrorism. According to a press release from Senator Cruz’s office,* Cruz’s bill has six original co-sponsors: Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Dean Heller (R-Nev.), Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Marco Rubio (R-Fl.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.).

Compared to the House bill, the Senate bill has a shorter list of North Korean conduct justifying a re-listing, relying almost exclusively on conduct in which U.S. or South Korean courts found the North Korean government responsible for acts of international terrorism. The obvious exception is that the Cruz bill raises the murder of Kim Jong-nam with VX, a persistent nerve agent, in that crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur, which would be the first state-sponsored terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

The bills also differ in their approaches. The Cruz bill (still no number, but here’s the text) simply asks the Secretary of State to make a determination whether North Korea has repeatedly sponsored acts of international terrorism. The Poe bill (H.R. 479) forces the administration to go through a series of alleged North Korean acts, and then say whether (1) North Korea did it, and (2) whether it’s international terrorism.

Both bills, however, omit the case of the Rev. Kim Dong-shik, a lawful permanent resident of the United States with a family in Illinois, whom North Korean agents kidnapped from China in 2000, and starved or tortured to death (or both) a few months later. In that case, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit held that, despite the fact that there were no direct witnesses to Rev. Kim’s death inside North Korea, the evidence was still sufficient to support a judgment against the North Korean government (case number 13-7147), and remanded the case back to the District Court. The District Court then entered a $330 million judgment for Rev. Kim’s family (case number 09-648). In 2005, of Rev. Kim’s kidnappers, Ryu Young-Hwa, was caught and convicted by a South Korean court for his role in the kidnapping. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. Click here to see where Senator Obama signed a letter promising that he would not support removing North Korea from the list until North Korea accounted for Rev. Kim’s fate. Click here to see where presidential candidate Obama reneged on that promise.

Overall, however, both bills make a strong case in favor of a decision that ought to have been made years ago as a matter of the evidence, the law, and the policy reason behind the list — to discourage and deter states from sponsoring terrorism. Indeed, as I argued here, North Korea never convincingly renounced terrorism and never should have come off the list to begin with.

The bills aren’t identical, so there are two ways to reconcile them. If one of the bills passes its respective chamber, the other chamber can pass that bill and send it to the President (easier, and overwhelmingly more likely for a simple bill like this). If both chambers pass their respective bills, they could resolve the differences at a conference committee. The most likely alternative, however, is that the Secretary of State will put North Korea back on the list before either chamber passes its bill. When Congress this clearly wants the Secretary of State to take an action within his discretion that’s well justified by fact, law, and policy, the Secretary of State usually takes that action. John Kerry might not have wanted to do this as a matter of policy, but I doubt Rex Tillerson shares that view. Now that Tillerson is back from his visit to Seoul and Beijing, I’d guess that diplomatically speaking, the decks are clear for this.

While I’m on this topic, I have a few things to say about former State Department official Joseph DeThomas’s 38 North post, arguing against a re-listing. DeThomas starts by conceding that the VX attack on Kim Jong-un might have been an act of state-sponsored international terrorism, which goes a step beyond what another former State Department official said here:

Daniel Benjamin, who served as the US State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator under the Obama administration, says the murder lies in a “gray zone.”

While the suspected use of the deadly VX nerve agent is within the legal parameters of designating the North as a terrorist state, Mr. Benjamin told Voices of America, assassination by itself cannot be interpreted as an act of terrorism. 

“So this is a very unusual case,” said Benjamin, now director of the Dickey Center for International Understanding at Dartmouth College. [Christian Science Monitor]

Well. If directing your diplomats and clandestine agents to murder a nonviolent political critic with a persistent nerve agent in an airport terminal crowded with mothers, fathers, babies, and children in a friendly country doesn’t qualify as international terrorism, your definition needs some adjustment.

DeThomas then muses whether North Korea’s sponsorship is “repeated,” a question he could have resolved easily with more careful research. He’s welcome to mine, in fact, but he did cite Bruce Klingner’s excellent summary, which is more than sufficient. But DeThomas’s argument really comes down to this:

However, strategically, there should be no rush to designate Pyongyang. In the larger regional context, the North Korean issue does not need any additional ignition points. Tensions are already running high on the North Korean missile front with its tests of ballistic missile strikes on Japan and with both US and Japanese sources floating stories about preemptive military options to deal with it, not to mention the somewhat more rapid deployment of THAAD than outside observers expected. [….]

While Pyongyang may richly deserve the designation as a state sponsor of terrorism, it would be no sin to follow a deliberative pace in the designation process. A little over a hundred years ago, a state sponsored international terrorist political assassination in a strange city far away lit a spark among major powers that were absorbed in other domestic and international concerns. They unwittingly followed the logic of their responses to the assassination into a global war totally disproportionate to the crime. That war led to the fall of three empires, the death of millions and the end of Europe’s golden age. In the current environment on the Korean peninsula, taking a few weeks or months to sort things through on a terrorist designation will play to the US long-term advantage. [Joseph DeThomas, 38 North]

In other words, let’s not call North Korea a sponsor of terrorism because we’re terrorized. One could make the same argument about the military exercises underway now — those certainly rile Pyongyang. So does the enforcement of U.N. sanctions. So does accepting North Korean refugees and defectors. So does enforcing U.N. sanctions. So does seizing its smuggling ships. So does missile defense. And most of all, so does talking about human rights in North Korea — another issue the State Department spent years trying to downplay or sideline. If all discussions about North Korea policy begin and end with “let’s not rile them,” and if every potential North Korean victim is Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the message Pyongyang will hear is, “Send Gavrilo.” It’s only one example of what Marcus Noland calls “North Korean exceptionalism,” the unique excusal of North Korea from the standards of civilized humanity. If Pyongyang isn’t willing to disarm and you’ve exempted it from consequences that rile it, then your policy is paralyzed at “strategic patience.”

Lest I be accused of taking the views of two former officials as speaking for a department they no longer represent, let’s add this atrocious performance by a State Department witness at a congressional hearing. And for years, the State Department’s argument against a re-listing was, simply stated, a lie: that North Korea is “not known to have sponsored any terrorist acts since the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight in 1987.”

If the State Department now searches in angst for reasons why its influence (and budget) are diminishing in Washington, the opinions of DeThomas and Benjamin are as good an illustration as any. Based on conversations I’ve had with State Department people (in settings that weren’t appropriate for attribution) Foggy Bottom overwhelmingly opposes re-listing North Korea. State Department officials have told me to my face that North Korea doesn’t sponsor terrorism, despite the overwhelming evidence that it does (and there is no excuse for them not to know this). In some cases, they apply a conveniently narrow definition of “international terrorism” that’s at odds with past State Department precedent and with the legal definitions of the term. Or, they say that re-listing North Korea would be merely symbolic.

But if a re-listing would be merely symbolic, why do its opponents think North Korea would care so much? (DeThomas makes both arguments without reconciling the tension between them.)

The first answer is that a re-listing would be financially significant. It would require U.S. representatives to oppose benefits for North Korea from international financial institutions. It would trigger stronger financial sanctions and close an important loophole left by the Treasury Department’s failure to update and republish the outdated North Korean sanctions regulations a year after the passage of the NKSPEA. It would strip North Korea of its immunity from suit for its acts of terrorism. It would trigger SEC “material riskdisclosure requirements for companies that issue stocks and have investments in North Korea, which would trigger divestment by companies fearing shareholder protests.

A second and more significant answer is that North Korea is a state built on symbolism, and on propagating the idea that it holds the world in awe and terror. It tells its people that the world lives in awe and terror of their leaders to send the message that they should live in awe and terror of their leaders. It sends that message because it gives a terrorized, deprived, and shrunken people a reason to draw a sense of esteem, even greatness, from the state that oppresses them. North Korea is obsessed with the power of symbols because it is built on the power of symbols that maintain that awe and terror. That’s why Pyongyang denounced my report with such venom. That’s why it reacted so strongly to “The Interview.” That’s why KCNA is filled with tributes from Juche Study Societies in Equatorial Guinea, Burkina Faso, and Northumberland. It cannot afford for its subjects to know that the world views its leader with contempt and ridicule.

Lastly, re-listing matters because North Korea has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism. Americans should not allow their government to lie to them. That principle may be the most important one at stake here.

Continue Reading

Will China cooperate on North Korea sanctions? That depends on which “China” you mean.

I often talk about the importance of pressuring China to pressure North Korea. When I do, people sometimes cock their heads like my dog would do when he heard a new sound, and ask me whether China would cooperate with that. I answer this question with a question of my own: “Which China?” China, for all its top-down authoritarianism, isn’t a monolith. Like most societies, it has different constituencies with different views that fear different risks and pursue different interests. That’s why my answer to the first question depends on the answer to the second.

If you mean the Chinese defense establishment, which is constitutionally hostile to the United States and sees itself as in a zero-sum, Cold War competition against us, the answer will always be “no.” That China is our enemy by its own choice. Its default is to view anything that’s bad for America as good for China. Its attitude is probably hardening.

If you mean the Chinese foreign policy establishment, the answer will also be “no,” but its obstructionism might be tempered by strategic compromises or interrupted by some temporary feints at compliance (currently, the so-called coal ban). It’s almost as hostile to us as the defense establishment, but it pursues its ambitions more intelligently. It may despise Kim Jong-un, or it might just be pretending to, but either way, it probably despises us even more. Still, it recognizes the value of playing us, and it does that very well.

If you mean the Chinese businesses that willingly deal with North Korea, the answer will be “no” as long as North Korea’s checks clear, and it will be “yes” the instant they don’t, and it will be “yes” the instant the businessmen learn — to their abject horror — that some other businessman who deals with North Korea just had his bank accounts frozen and couldn’t make the payments on his Buick and that America can really do that.

If you mean the Chinese Finance Ministry, it will be “no” until we raise the cost of non-cooperation to unsustainable levels, by threatening to depress the levels of growth it must sustain to pay pensions for its aging population and maintain economic stability. That is its mission. And interestingly enough, China’s terrible reputation for financial integrity is a growing threat to that mission. I’ll explain in a moment.

If you mean the Chinese banks, it will be “no” until subpoenas start to rain down on their New York branches and their lawyers tell them that the only way to avoid the fate of BNP Paribas is to cooperate with the feds and settle for reduced civil penalties and deferred prosecution.

It’s a misnomer to refer to a “Chinese” banking industry that relies on access to foreign finance, and thus subjects itself to foreign regulation. Going global can cause some culture shock for banks that are used to China’s lax Anti-Money Laundering (AML) regulation. For the last few years, Treasury’s AML focus has been on European and Middle Eastern banks dealing with Iran, so Chinese banks have had a (mostly) free ride from the feds. But New York and EU regulators haven’t been as laissez-faire about AML compliance and have been handing them some stiff fines. That’s why People’s Bank of China officials recently “pledged a tougher fight against money laundering.”

Behind this clarion call by Beijing’s bank supervisors was an unnerving realization that some of the nation’s biggest banks had left themselves vulnerable to anti-money-laundering sweeps by regulators abroad.

This vulnerability stems from ambitious overseas expansions in recent years by the Bank of China (BOC), the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and other powerful, state-owned lenders. As of June, according to official data, China’s biggest bank, the ICBC, was operating 412 branches in 42 countries, while the BOC had 564 branches in 46 countries. China Construction Bank (CCB) counted 140 overseas branches, and Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) had 17. [Caixin Global]

Here comes the culture shock.

At home, according to banking experts who spoke with Caixin, Chinese banks have been operating in a regulatory environment that’s generally soft on money laundering rules for financial institutions. Some of these banks have thus learned the hard way that many regulators outside China not only diligently enforce rules designed to prevent dirty transactions, but are also eager to slap violators with heavy fines and even imprisonment.

And also, don’t usually take bribes.

The BOC, the nation’s fourth-largest lender, reportedly agreed on Feb. 17 to pay 600,000 euros ($634,000) to settle a money laundering case involving its branch in Milan, Italy. The branch had been targeted by Italian investigators since June 2015 who had looked into whether BOC helped clients transfer to China about 2 million euros linked to criminal activity.

In addition, a judge in the Italian city of Florence on the same day handed four BOC-Milan branch employees two-year suspended prison sentences after they were convicted of breaking Italy’s anti-money-laundering laws.

A Hong Kong-based expert on money laundering who declined to be named said while the fine against BOC-Milan was comparatively “moderate,” the criminal convictions were “surprising.” The decisions in Italy followed a November decision in the United States by New York state’s Department of Financial Services, which fined a local ABC branch $215 million for illicit money transfers.

By now, it has become reasonably clear that the Trump administration will soon revoke the sub rosa immunity the Obama administration had given Chinese banks to launder North Korea’s money. Not only will Chinese banks have to worry about EU and state regulators, they’ll have to start worrying about the Treasury Department, too.

That isn’t just a worry for China’s smaller, shadier banks. Some of the biggest banks in China were servicing North Korean customers until at least early 2016. Others were named in the Dandong Hongxiang case for doing so months later. Some of those banks have branches in New York. Those without still depend on U.S. correspondents to process their payments through the financial system, just as Banco Delta Asia once did.

The correspondents, in turn, have legal duties to comply with Know-Your-Customer (KYC) and AML regulations, which will require them to ask questions about the names, nationalities, and passport numbers of their customers; whether they’re sanctioned by the UN, Treasury, or the EU; and whether their business addresses are, say, shell companies in the British Virgin Islands, or empty offices next door to the local North Korean embassy. Treasury expects banks to hire qualified compliance specialists, employ highly specialized compliance software, and implement AML and KYC compliance procedures.

If Treasury begins to enforce those rules, banks will skimp on AML and KYC compliance (such as) at their own peril. If you click those last two links, you’ll see that I just cited examples of Chinese banks that got away with lax compliance in the past. The Agricultural Bank of China (ABC) is an example of one that didn’t:

After the branch opened in August 2012, Yu worked to boost the ABC’s interbank-transaction business through trade financing and other services. His goal was to quickly expand assets at the branch, which was ABC’s only operation in the United States.

But Yu’s strategy apparently exposed the branch to compliance risks, as his favorite businesses involved transactions executed on behalf of other banks’ customers. And ABC had limited access to information about those customers.

Yu maintained his strategic focus despite a 2014 warning by the central bank pointing to risks associated with overseas banking services.

Until a whistleblower came along, anyway.

But that same year, Taft’s allegations landed on investigator desks at the New York Fed, triggering a probe that led to a Fed order in September: ABC was given 60 days to deliver a plan for fixing risk management flaws and enhancing money controls at the New York branch.

The fines were levied two months later after New York state regulators determined ABC had deliberately failed to scrutinize dubious money transfers.

Now for the part where the bank rolls over, cooperates, and promises to get its compliance act together to reduce its penalty.

Sources close to the matter said an original fine of $500 million was eventually cut by more than half following negotiations between regulators and ABC-New York. The branch also agreed to hire an independent, regulator-approved monitor to assess its business.

“After the incident, ABC (headquarters in China) held several meetings emphasizing managing overseas branches and subsidiaries,” said a source at the bank.

Nevertheless, the bank’s reputation had taken a major hit. In November, for example, the credit rating agency Moody’s said the regulatory penalty had highlighted oversight failures at ABC and would have a negative effect on the bank’s credit rating.

Political subversion and human intelligence can be another wedge to incentivize banks to make better choices. Every arrest or defection of a North Korean diplomat or financier has the potential to expose more parts of Pyongyang’s financial network and implicate the banks that skirted the law to do business with them. If banks begin to see North Korea itself as unstable, more of them will begin to see North Korean customers as legally risky. The best possible way for a bank to mitigate that risk? File a Suspicious Activity Report with the Treasury Department and cooperate.

All of which is a long way of saying that China’s generals and diplomats almost certainly won’t cooperate on North Korea, at least not voluntarily — and not yet. That will make it harder to enforce sanctions (especially trade sanctions) but by no means impossible, because the Chinese banking industry has to cooperate. China’s generals and diplomats may not want commercial banks to be AML compliant, but China’s central bank does. Banks in Malaysia, Russia, Vietnam, Singapore, and Tanzania will face the same choice, of course, but China is the lynchpin, the Abbottabad of North Korea’s illicit finance. That finance is absolutely essential to Kim Jong-un’s capacity to buy, sell, import, export, pay, fuel, repair, and sustain. The Workers’ Party almost certainly keeps most of its money in Chinese banks. After all, what are you going to buy with all the money in Pyongyang, especially now that correspondent relationships with North Korean banks are banned by both the U.N. and the U.S.? Answer: stuff imported from China, bought with dollars held on deposit in a Chinese bank.

Freeze those dollars and Pyongyang is living on borrowed time. Sure, you can smuggle bulk cash a few million dollars at a time. Sure, you can run uninsured rust-buckets across the Yellow Sea with their lights and transponders turned off, carrying away whatever wares that cash buys, at least until all the (uninsured) ships smack into rocks, get T-boned by oil tankers, or get seized at the entrance to some canal or another. Drug cartels can run that way for years, but that isn’t a sustainable model for ruling over 23 million increasingly informed and resentful people.

Now that I’ve laid this foundation, you’ll understand the legal and policy implications of my upcoming post about what U.N. Panel of Experts report, and what it just told us about China, North Korea, and money laundering.

Continue Reading

N. Korea, Lazarus & SWIFT: Are the white hats closing in? (Update: SWIFT cuts off remaining N. Korean banks)

In the last month, major news stories about North Korea have bombarded my batting cage faster than I’ve been able to swing at them. I’d wondered when I’d have a chance to cover Katy Burne’s detailed story in the Wall Street Journal about the empty half of the SWIFT glass — that despite its recent decision to disconnect three U.N.-designated North Korean banks, it’s still messaging for banks that are sanctioned by the Treasury Department, but not by the U.N.:

The U.S. Treasury-sanctioned banks that remain on Swift include the state-owned Foreign Trade Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the country’s primary foreign-exchange bank; Kumgang Bank; Koryo Credit Development Bank; and North East Asia Bank, according to people familiar with the network. A search on Swift’s website listed active bank identifier codes for the institutions as of Monday.

The U.S. designated for sanctions the Foreign Trade Bank in 2013, saying it facilitated weapons of mass destruction programs in North Korea. The other three were sanctioned in December as the U.S. targeted entities it said supported the North Korean government and its weapons programs following the Asian nation’s September 2016 nuclear test.

The apparent sanctions gap raises questions about how easily North Korea could move currency through alternative banking channels, something the U.N. said it has been known to do in the past through fronting companies. [….]

While based in Brussels and regulated by Belgian authorities, the company intersects daily with U.S. financial institutions, processing tens of millions of payment instructions, including through a large facility in Culpeper County, Va. [WSJ, Katy Burne]

I won’t sugar-coat this; the fact that these dirty and important (to His Porcine Majesty) banks can still use SWIFT is a major hole in our sanctions, and whether Congress and the administration are willing to close it will be a test of how serious they are about stranding Pyongyang’s money.

I can understand some of SWIFT’s likely arguments against that, mind you: first, SWIFT has earned much good will from Treasury for favors it has done them on terrorist financing; second, there may be other potential providers of the same service that may be less responsive to U.S. legal pressure. Fair enough, but whoever takes up that slack in SWIFT’s wake should be sanctioned to swift extinction (yes, intended). For a list of North Korean banks indicating which ones are designated by the U.N. and the U.S., see this post, and scroll down.

Meanwhile, Symantec now claims it has additional evidence that the hacker group Lazarus, which it had previously linked to the robbery of the Bangladesh bank using hacked SWIFT software, is responsible for that attack, and more:

A North Korean hacking group known as Lazarus was likely behind a recent cyber campaign targeting organizations in 31 countries, following high-profile attacks on Bangladesh Bank, Sony and South Korea, cyber security firm Symantec Corp said on Wednesday.

Symantec said in a blog that researchers have uncovered four pieces of digital evidence suggesting the Lazarus group was behind the campaign that sought to infect victims with “loader” software used to stage attacks by installing other malicious programs.

“We are reasonably certain” Lazarus was responsible, Symantec researcher Eric Chien said in an interview.

The North Korean government has denied allegations it was involved in the hacks, which were made by officials in Washington and Seoul, as well as security firms.

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation representatives could not immediately be reached for comment.

Symantec did not identify targeted organizations and said it did not know if any money had been stolen. Nonetheless, Symantec said the claim was significant because the group used a more sophisticated targeting approach than in previous campaigns.

“This represents a significant escalation of the threat,” said Dan Guido, chief executive of Trail of Bits, which does consulting to banks and the U.S. government. [Reuters]

Further down, the report suggests that one or more Polish banks may also have been hit, but “Reuters has been unable to ascertain what happened in that attack.” The headline having promised evidence of attribution to North Korea, however, the text of the story itself left me wanting more. It’s not news that Symantec has linked Lazarus to North Korea; Symantec did that almost a year ago. Nothing in Reuters’s report adds evidence to that attribution.

Nor does this story suggest that there’s enough evidence for the feds to act against Lazarus, although it does hint that the FBI is investigating. Jurisdiction shouldn’t be an issue in the Bangladesh case; money moved through the New York Federal Reserve Bank. Attribution is the real question. Depending on what they can prove, the feds would have many potential charging options, including bank fraud, wire fraud, the Computer Crime and Abuse Act, racketeering, and money laundering. Furthermore, there are anti-hacking provisions in both the NKSPEA (section 104(a)(7)) and Executive Order 13722, which means that if the feds could find any of Lazarus’s money, or any assets of Lazarus’s co-conspirators — regardless of whether those assets can be traced to any of these specific acts — the Treasury Department could freeze them, and the Justice Department could forfeit them.

And needless to say, the indictment of a state actor would be a big deal, for a lot of reasons.

So far, I don’t see enough in the open sources to support that, but it’s good news that the white hats are working diligently on this. If they can attribute this to senior officials in the North Korean government — most likely, within the Reconnaissance General Bureau — then it would be our legal basis to go after the RGB’s assets, which we’ve recently learned include some sophisticated and global commercial operations. This story bears close watching.

~   ~   ~

Update:

Reuters is reporting that SWIFT will disconnect the remaining North Korean banks:

SWIFT, the inter-bank messaging network which is the backbone of international finance, said it planned to cut off the remaining North Korean banks still connected to its system, as concerns about the country’s nuclear program and missile tests grow. SWIFT said the four remaining banks on the network would be disconnected for failing to meet its operating criteria.

The bank-owned co-operative declined to specify what the banks’ shortcomings were or if it had received representations from any governments. Experts said the decision to cut off banks which were not subject to European Union sanctions was unusual and a possible sign of diplomatic pressure on SWIFT. [Reuters]

Now that SWIFT has gotten itself right with Jesus, I would like to implore everyone, everywhere to lay off SWIFT. It’s absolutely true that if we turn SWIFT into a political surrogate for our sundry political conflicts, the world’s dirtiest banks will just take their business elsewhere. That’s not a trend we want to encourage. SWIFT has usually been a responsible member of the financial community, sometimes at great cost to itself.

My argument all along has been that (1) North Korea deserves to be an exception to that rule because (2) North Korea is a unique threat to the financial system — not to mention, to all of humanity — as documented in (3) seven U.N. Security Council Resolutions, a Patriot Act 311 determination, and a call for “countermeasures” by the Financial Action Task Force. You can’t say that about any other country on earth right now — not even Iran. I can’t reconcile messaging for North Korean banks with any of those authorities. And if any competitor tries messaging for the FTB, it’s especially important that the Treasury Department should have the authority to obliterate them (which is why Congress should still proceed with something like the BANK Act).

Having said all that, I wouldn’t be too quick to assume that diplomatic pressure was the main reason for this most welcome decision. “Operating criteria” could mean a lot of things, but it’s a slightly better fit with “massive global bank fraud” than it is with “diplomatic pressure.” If there are more developments in the Lazarus investigation than the Reuters report makes apparent, and if those developments convinced SWIFT that it had unwittingly helped the North Koreans defraud its more reputable clients by sharing its software with them — and their hackers — that would be a perfectly good (and equally plausible) reason for SWIFT to have cut the North Koreans off.

Yet again, the North Koreans are tactically brilliant criminals. And yet again, they’re strategically moronic. It’s a rare and happy day when someone finally holds them to account for it.

Continue Reading

UN report finds extensive evidence that China hosts N. Korea’s proliferation networks

A new report from the Wall Street Journal, quoting “U.S. and Asian officials,” says that the Trump Administration is considering “increasing financial penalties on Chinese companies in response to growing evidence of their support for North Korea’s weapons programs.” Such as:

In a case that particularly alarmed the Trump administration, a North Korean businessman attempted to use Pyongyang’s embassy in Beijing to export a lithium metal that is used to miniaturize nuclear warheads, according to the U.N. report. [Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon]

As for that “growing evidence,” this year’s report from the U.N. Panel of Experts monitoring the (non-) enforcement of sanctions against North Korea is packed with so much of it that I couldn’t even jam a Cliffs Notes summary into one post. This post will cover the evidence that China is allowing known, U.N.-designated North Korean proliferators to operate from its territory, often openly. We’ll turn to China’s tolerance for (and abetting of) North Korean money laundering later this week, as soon as I find the time to write it up. Bear in mind, this post itself is a sequel to other posts I’ve written in previous years, also documenting China’s flagrant cheating on the sanctions, or its simple refusal to enforce them.

[“Logging vehicles” made by a state-owned company in China, via the U.N. Panel’s 2013 and 2015 reports]

Solomon’s report also adds to the leaks I discussed here, suggesting that the Trump administration will opt for a harder line, including secondary sanctions, against Chinese companies that aid and abet those violations.

But Trump administration officials have signaled there will be even greater financial pressure placed on Beijing if it doesn’t cut off North Korea, a step that risks Chinese retaliation. “We are putting the world on notice: The games are over,” Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said while announcing the sanctions on ZTE last week. [….]

U.S. officials said Mr. Tillerson would be discussing North Korea at all his stops in Asia, including the issue of “secondary” sanctions against non-North Korean companies that have been aiding Pyongyang. “All of the existing tools that we have to try to bring pressure on North Korea are on the table, and we’ll be looking to try to see what the most effective combination is,” said a senior U.S. official briefed on the Asia trip.

Republican senators wrote Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin last month and called for an investigation into the Bank of China and other Chinese firms for their alleged roles in helping North Korea. [Wall Street Journal, Jay Solomon; link to senator’s letter here]

More on that here, via the New York Times. To be clear, some of this cheating is willful, but most of it is what I’d call willful blindness, where the Chinese authorities knowingly permit North Korean proliferators to operate on their territory, even when the front companies and their agents were designated by the U.N. years ago, and often long after being put on clear notice by the U.N. Panel. In a few cases, China clings to obtuse interpretations of the resolutions to avoid complying with them. What all of these cases have in common is that U.N. experts were able to find violations on Chinese soil, in plain sight, that Chinese government officials somehow could not.

Nuclear Proliferation

Kumsan Trading. Member states are supposed to freeze the assets of, and expel the representatives of, companies involved in North Korean nuclear, missile, and other WMD proliferation. According to the Panel, the Korea Kumsan Trading Corporation is a front for North Korea’s General Bureau of Atomic Energy and helps it procure materials and fund its operations. Kumsan advertises itself online openly as dealing in sanctioned products, including vanadium and precious metals, with locations in both Moscow and Dandong. (Paras. 18-20.)

Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. (KOMID) is North Korea’s main arms dealer. It was designated in 2009 for WMD proliferation, but probably earns most of its revenue through violations of an embargo on conventional arms sales, by selling to governments in Africa and the Middle East. KOMID operates through multiple front companies that do business more-or-less openly in China. China is required to expel the representatives of these companies, but it almost never does. When one of them is exposed, it may revoke a business license or registration, but the operative goes right back into business under a new name at a new address. The Panel also found that at least nine KOMD representatives traveled through China in 2016, despite a requirement that member states deny them entry. (Table 8, Page 68.)

One of KOMID’s fronts is Namchongang Trading, which was designated by the U.N. in 2009 for procuring nuclear-related items. It operates openly in Beijing and Dandong, China, through several Chinese commercial websites. (Para. 156.) Namchongang has also operated as (or in cahoots with) Taeryonggang Trading, Namhung Trading, and Sobaeksu United Corporation, which operates in Beijing, Yingkou and Dandong. The EU designated Sobaeksu in 2010 for “the research and acquisition of sensitive products and equipment.” The Panel suspects that this entire network is involved with KOMID. (Paras. 156-59.) KOMID also does business through a front company called Beijing New Technology. (Para. 163.)

Another KOMID front, Korea Heungjin Trading, which was designated in 2012, for nuclear, missile, and other WMD proliferation, also operates openly in Dandong and Dalian. A North Korean diplomat posted at the embassy in Beijing serves as its director. (Para. 187-89.)

Green Pine Associated was designated by the U.N. in 2012 for its involvement in North Korea’s nuclear, missile, and other WMD programs. It’s still doing business openly in both Beijing, Shenyang, and Hong Kong as Green Pine, Natural Resources Development Investment Corporation, King Helong International Trading, Korea Unhasu Trading Company, and Saeng Pil Trading Corporation. (Paras. 166-83.) Green Pine is the company behind the attempted sale of the lithium from … guess where:

24. The Panel investigated the 2016 attempted online sale of lithium metal by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. The enriched lithium-6 isotope, and products or devices containing it, are on the list of prohibited nuclear-related items adopted by the Security Council (see annex 4-4). According to IAEA, lithium-6 is used to produce tritium, an isotope found in boosted nuclear devices. This sales attempt suggests that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has access to remaining quantities of the material.

25. Li-6 is advertised for sale by a company of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, General Precious Metal, which the European Union has identified as an alias of Green Pine Associated Corporation (Green Pine). Mr. Chol Yun was listed as the contact person of General Precious Metal for sale of the mineral and has an address and phone numbers in Beijing (see annex 4-5). The same name appeared as third secretary of the embassy of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in Beijing on an official diplomatic list dated 24 September 2012 (see annex 4-6). The Panel notes a pattern whereby the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea has accredited Green Pine overseas representatives as diplomats. The Panel continues to investigate this diplomat’s involvement in prohibited activities and his possible connection with another prohibited activity (see para. 91).

Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture was designated in 2013 for WMD proliferation, mainly for buying, selling, and manufacturing machine tools used for making both conventional weapons and WMDs. It shows up in POE reports year after year because it continues to operate, and to display its wares at trade shows, in both Russia and China. In 2016, a Chinese company exported several machine tools to North Korea, and the Chinese government was reportedly investigating (!) Ryonha’s involvement. (Para. 196.)

[From the U.N. Panel’s 2014 report]

Training of scientists. The resolutions ban member states from training North Koreans in sensitive technology that could be used for North Korea’s WMD programs. The North Korean universities that train the country’s nuclear and missile scientists have exchange agreements with universities in Russia and China. The Panel asked the Chinese universities to explain, but they never responded. (Para. 135.)

Missile Proliferation

Kwangmyongsong missile parts. Someone, presumably the U.S. Navy, recovered the pieces of a Kwangmyongsong missile North Korea launched in February 2016 and found that it contained “ball bearings and engraved Cyrillic characters … identical to those from the 2012 Unha-3, and a “camera [and] EMI filter” from a “Chinese manufacturer, Beijing East Exhibition High-Tech Technology Co. Ltd.” (Paras. 57-58.) That “someone” also discovered the Pyongyang had imported pressure transmitters from the U.K. and Ireland, via the manufacturer’s distributor in China, via middlemen in China. (Para. 59.) This suggests several layers of violations — China’s failure to expel North Korean representatives of sanctioned entities, to enforce export controls, or to inspect cargo going to North Korea.

Shipment of Scud parts to Egypt. Paragraphs 71-77 of last year’s report discuss a shipment of Scud missile parts to Egypt. Since then, the Panel has determined that the whole scheme was run out of the North Korean embassy in Beijing. (Paras. 88-89.) The shipper was Ryongsong Trading Company, and the seller was Rungrado Trading Company, which you may remember for its human trafficking in Europe. Rungrado was designated by the Treasury Department last year for “the exportation of workers” from North Korea to earn foreign currency for Pyongyang, some of which went to North Korean agencies that were designated for supporting WMD programs. South Korea considers Rungrado to be an alias for Ryongsong. (FN.99.) Although the U.S. Treasury Department routinely designates aliases, it has not designated Ryongsong.

Weapons Trafficking

North Korea is subject to a U.N. embargo on the import, export, sale, or purchase of weapons, including weapons components, technology, services, training, and dual-use items. Since March, China has been required to inspect all cargo “that has originated in the DPRK, or that is destined for the DPRK, or has been brokered or facilitated by the DPRK or its nationals, or by individuals or entities acting on their behalf or at their direction, or entities owned or controlled by them, or by designated individuals or entities, or that is being transported on DPRK flagged aircraft or maritime vessels.”  (Para. 18.) Pretty clearly, that isn’t happening.

Syria rocket shipment. You’ve already read my post on this, right? Last August, Egyptian authorities seized a record haul of North Korean weapons, mostly PG-7 antitank rockets, hidden under iron ore aboard the M/V Jie Shun. I guessed that Syria was the destination because of the geography, but it’s possible that the client could have been Hamas or Hezbollah (which have also been Pyongyang’s arms clients).

This transaction also relied heavily on North Korean agents based in China. The bill of lading lists a shipper whose address is a hotel room in Dalian, a city often used by North Korean operatives. (Para. 63.) The holder of the ship’s compliance document was one Fan Mintan. A second man, Zhang Qiao, was its emergency contact, arranged for the ship’s insurance, and registered the ship’s operator in the Marshall islands. (Paras. 65-66.) Zhang is also involved in the coal trade with North Korea (para. 68), and thus played a role in violating UNSCR 2270 and 2321. He is also linked to another suspected North Korean smuggling ship, the M/V Light. A third man, Li Anshan, whom the Panel links to Ocean Maritime Management, a North Korean shipping company designated by the U.N. for arms smuggling, helped arrange for the Jie Shun’s Cambodian registration.

Eritrea radios shipment and Glocom. I previously posted about Glocom, the Reconnaissance General Bureau front company that manufactured sophisticated military radios and was based in Malaysia. Glocom made headlines after it was exposed just after the assassination of Kim Jong-nam. Starting at Paragraph 72 of its report, the Panel described how Glocom shipped radios to Eritrea. According to the Panel, that shipment “originated in China.”

75. The air waybills listed the shipper as Beijing Chengxing Trading Co. Ltd. According to the Chinese business registry, the company is still active, mainly trading in electronics, mining equipment and machinery (see annex 8-3). Mr. Pei Minhao (???) was listed as a legal representative until 26 February 2016 and still owns most shares in the company (see para. 164).

Glocom had North Korean representatives based in both Malaysia and China; had bank accounts, front companies, and procurement agents in both Malaysia and China; used mostly Chinese suppliers; and shipped its components to Beijing or Dandong for assembly (the report didn’t specify where). (Para. 77-84, 164.) Glocom did most of its business in U.S. dollars or euro through a sanctioned bank, Daedong Credit Bank, “to transfer funds to a supply chain of more than 20 companies located primarily on the Chinese mainland; in Hong Kong, China; and in Singapore.” (Paras. 233-25.)

Naval vessel repair & construction. Last year, the Panel reported that Green Pine had refurbished military patrol boats for Angola in violation of the arms embargo. The parts were shipped from China, the Panel has asked China for an explanation, and China still hasn’t given one. (Para. 103.)

North Korean UAV that crashed in South Korea. A Beijing company, Microfly Engineering and Technology, made it. After that, the trail leads to another Chinese company and two middlemen, who either point fingers at one another or deny all involvement. The Panel asked China to investigate, but China hasn’t responded. (Para. 107.)

Conclusion

When reporters try to make sense of China’s inconsistent and shifting explanations for why it won’t enforce sanctions against North Korea, they often settle on the consensus that China doesn’t really want North Korea to have nukes, but that it’s afraid that strict enforcement of sanctions will cause North Korea to collapse. This evidence should cause us to question that consensus. When China hosts all of these entities that spend scarce North Korean resources on nuclear components instead of food and consumer goods that might stabilize the regime, you have to look beyond regime preservation to explain China’s motives. Frankly, I can’t buy the consensus that Beijing doesn’t want North Korea nuked up when I see this much evidence that it’s helping to make that happen. Maybe the scholars our scholars are talking to don’t want a nuclear North Korea, but I’m not sure those scholars necessarily speak for China’s defense establishment.

Continue Reading

Another North Korean ship sinks, this time off the Chinese coast

In an effort to hide their sanctions violations from the prying eyes of the U.N. Panel of Experts — and from Leo Byrne and the sharp-eyed investigators at C4ADS — North Korean ships have taken to turning off the transponders and navigational devices that allow others to know where they are. Now that I’ve explained the advantages of that, let’s talk about one big possible disadvantage: other ships might crash into you and sink you.

That’s the best explanation I can piece together from what Leo Byrne could piece together from the what Chinese Maritime Ministry is saying about the sinking of the M/V Kum San off the Chinese port of Lianyungang, where it had been “hovering,” in standard North Korean fashion, until a Chinese oil tanker came along. Although the report says the Kum San struck the tanker, the report also says that the tanker was undamaged and went along its way, while the Kum San (apparently fully loaded) went to the bottom.

As with the January sinking of the M/V Chong Gen off Japan, all the crew were rescued. The Chong Gen was another North Korean general cargo vessel that sank in the Tsushima Strait with a cargo of rice, for reasons that were never fully explained, but might also have been due to a navigational failure given its proximity to the rocky Japanese coastline.

The Kum San had been flying the flag of Sierra Leone until recently, when it reflagged as North Korean. Its IMO does not appear in the Treasury Department’s SDN List, so it was not directly linked to smuggling. Typical of a North Korean ship, however, its owner is a company with just one ship, which is a tactic North Korea uses to obscure the true ownership of its vessels.

According to Byrne, North Korea recently began to consolidate the ownership of its shipping, and specifically its tanker fleet, as a result of the difficulty it is facing in registering its ships abroad under flags of convenience. A mass re-registration to Tanzania had become an embarrassment for the Tanzanian government. Byrne later discovered a similar North Korean effort to re-register ships under the Fijian flag, but the Fijian police soon began to investigate the practice.

The U.N. also recently banned other states from insuring North Korean vessels, so in theory, Pyongyang’s state insurance company (which was recently designated by the U.S. Treasury Department) will eat the entire cost of the loss. 

More posts on North Korean shipping here.

Continue Reading

North Korea calls U.S. Ambassador to U.N. “a political prostitute,” usual suspects fall silent

The regime that called President Obama a “wicked black monkey” and an “ugly subhuman,” and called Justice Michael Kirby “a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality,” has responded to Ambassador Nikki Haley’s statement at the U.N. last week that Kim Jong-un was not rational:

KCNA Commentary Brands U.S. Representative at UN as Political Prostitute

    Pyongyang, March 11 (KCNA) — The U.S. representative at the UN Haley known for her capricious political savvy has now gone helter-skelter.

    At a press conference on March 8 that followed a session of the UN Security Council on discussing measures to counter the DPRK’s ballistic rocket launch, she said they are not dealing with a man of reason, meant the supreme leadership of the DPRK, not content with such words as “blame” and “no negotiations”.

    Her wild words are just sophism of political and diplomatic half-wit devoid of the ability to analyze and judge things and express oneself.

    She is no more than a crafty woman who rose to the post of representing the U.S. at the international body for her worldly wisdom and disguise.

(Update: Come for the sexism, stay for the racism!)

    In the past she posed herself as a white for her political purpose and at the 2010 election of state governor she was fined for hiding the case of lobbying only to be branded as political swindler and criminal.

    She is pointed as a political prostitute even from ordinary people for her chameleon-like nature.

    At the presidential election last year she opposed the present owner of the White House, saying that certain is the point that no support will be given, and flattered Rubio, key election rival, saying only when he is elected, every day will be pleasant.

    But no sooner had the present chief executive taken office than she twisted his arm to sending her to the UN to represent the U.S. She is, for sure, a matchless political prostitute.

    She has only pursued successful career and financial benefits, with no heed given to conscience and morality. Now she has become an idiot unable to judge whether it is realistic and reasonable or not to trumpet about the “north Korea’s denuclearization first”.

    We have no interest in dealing with such human rejects as Haley, wagging her tongue without elementary concept on the reason. -0-

On behalf of Gloria Steinem, Christine Ahn, Code Pink, and Women Cross DMZ, who were not available for comment, I condemn this vile sexism. Still, on occasions like these, North Korea becomes a useful reagent for separating liberals from the alt-left. To liberals, tolerance and the rejection of racism, sexism, and homophobia are among the highest social imperatives. The alt-left wields these imperatives as cudgels, but invariably falls silent when a totalitarian enemy of America offends them.

The North Koreans might have offered a better criticism of Haley by pointing out — without the use of nasty, sexist language — that she was muted in her criticism of Donald Trump when his most offensive statement about women came to light (for which, it must be said, Trump offered some form of apology for the first time in his campaign). One might attribute Haley’s response to partisanship or opportunism. One might also say that for Haley, as for most Americans, last November was about choosing which candidate she disliked less. (That Haley expressed this openly certainly wasn’t partisan, and may or may not have been opportunistic, depending on your interpretation.)

The fact that Gloria Steinem isn’t running for office, and that Ahn and the Code Pink crowd know they’re on the political fringe here in America, doesn’t mean that their silence isn’t its own form of opportunism. It’s just that their opportunistic silence is meant to avoid disfavor in another capital, in another hemisphere. Yet by their selective silence, they again show their hypocrisy and their tolerance of intolerance. Some of them seem to define themselves by their hatred of America, which they reveal by associating themselves with its most repugnant enemies. Others may be simply deluded. In all cases, all that is necessary for misogyny to triumph is for women to fall silent. Yet in the end, there is no equivalence here. You have every right to hate what Donald Trump said about women, but if you have a shred of principle in you, you should hate what North Korea does to women far more.

Continue Reading

Trump admin leaning toward tougher sanctions & (maybe) “covert actions”

For weeks, we’ve heard that the Trump administration was expected to complete a top-to-bottom review of North Korea policy by the end of this month. Barely into the second week, Reuters is already giving us a peek at where the review is headed. Skim past the mandatory all-options-are-on-the-table disclaimer and “senior U.S. officials” say this:

They added a consensus was forming around relying for now on increased economic and diplomatic pressure – especially by pressing China to do more to rein in North Korea – while deploying advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and possibly in Japan, as well. [Reuters]

Just as I predicted somewhere, the North Koreans did something provocative early in Trump’s presidency, and that strategy backfired bigly:

Among the other possibilities, one U.S. official said, was returning North Korea to the U.S. list of countries that support terrorism. That would be a response to the suspected use of nerve gas to kill Kim’s brother at a Malaysian airport last month. It would subject Pyongyang – already heavily sanctioned by the United Nations and individual states, so far to little effect – to additional financial sanctions that were removed when it was taken off the list in 2008.

Sensibly, “U.S. officials” have concluded that bombing them is too dangerous an option, and just as sensibly, they say that the idea could “gain traction” if Pyongyang approaches the capability of nuking the U.S. This also intrigued me very much.

Trump also could opt for escalating cyber attacks and other covert actions aimed at undermining the North Korean leadership, a U.S. government source said.

As I say, it takes many instruments to play a symphony, and “covert actions” would do rather nicely in complementing sanctions as a means to shift the internal balance of power in North Korea and convince the elites that they must change or be changed.

Yonhap aggregates reports from various sources, including Reuters, and also concludes, “For now, a consensus is forming around the option of increasing economic and diplomatic pressure, especially by pressing China to exercise more of its leverage over Pyongyang while beefing up defenses with advanced anti-missile defenses in South Korea and Japan.” 

Other recent reports lend credibility to that view.

The cancellation of the visas for the North Korean diplomats who were on their way to Track 1.5 talks in Washington certainly doesn’t suggest that Trump is desperate to deal now. I wouldn’t read that as a complete aversion to talks so much as a sound judgment that this isn’t the time, because (1) we have no leverage to bargain with, (2) North Korea had just carried out a missile test and history’s first state-sponsored act of WMD terrorism, and (3) North Korea’s pre-talks declarations that its nukes and missiles were off the table. Ergo, talk about what?

A series of statements by President Trump himself, and by his reported confidant Edward Feulner, suggest that he’s leaning toward a harder line. Republicans in both the House and the Senate have also called for a policy that tightens sanctions and expands information operations.

The administration looks like it’s laying the diplomatic foundation to pressure Pyongyang. Secretary of State Tillerson has already been pushing China to use “all available tools” and its “unique leverage” to pressure North Korea to disarm, and quickly rejected China’s freeze proposal. (Let’s pray Nikki Haley is wrong about Kim Jong-un being irrational, although it’s hard for me to explain the K.L. attack as rational.)

There are early signs of financial diplomacy, too. The new Treasury Secretary, Steve Mnuchin, recently met with his South Korean counterpart to talk about how to implement sanctions against North Korea. The two governments, along with Japan, are already coordinating ways to combine their economic and financial leverage against North Korea. I’d have to think that the administration would have opposed the SWIFT ban of three North Korean banks if its policy was headed in a different direction.

This week’s actions by the Justice, Treasury, and Commerce departments against Chinese IT firm ZTE for exporting Commerce-controlled technology to Iran and North Korea suggest that China has lost its immunity from consequences for breaking our laws. Although it would be overstating matters to say that China was completely off-limits during the Obama administration, for Trump to go this big this soon sends a strong signal when Trump and Xi are still sniffing each other out. If I can offer the Chinese banking industry some advice that could save them billions of dollars, it would be to invest in Anti-Money Laundering compliance and Know-Your-Customer programs.

All of this would be the best possible start for getting the fundamental policy direction right. What remains to be seen is whether Trump will put sufficient resources, competent staff, and political will on this problem. It’s a policy that will require steadiness and patience against an enemy that’s good at breaking our attention and our coalitions with both bribery and extortion. And building pressure is never as hard as knowing how to use that pressure to achieve realistic outcomes. 

A programming note: This was supposed to be the short post that lasted half a commute while I turned back to writing about the U.N. Panel of Experts report. See how well that plan worked? Tomorrow, we return to our regularly scheduled programming, God willing. Please, Kim Jong-un, try not to do anything too stupid for two or three days so I can keep up, OK?

Update: So just around the time I posted this, the news of Park Geun-hye’s removal from office broke. I probably won’t post about that, because: (1) I’m not a Korean lawyer; (2) I haven’t read the decision; (3) consequently, I have no useful knowledge to contribute to your understanding of it; (4) I accepted this as the likely outcome months ago; (5) I want to use my limited time to write about other things where I have more value to add; and (6) my feelings on this topic are conflicted. If Park really did extort bribes — and I have to give the court the benefit of the doubt that she did — then she deserved to be removed from office. Belatedly, she ended up getting North Korea right, which makes it all the more disappointing that she dragged a sound policy down with her. The only thing I’m fairly certain of now is that the next South Korean president will have a worse North Korea policy than the last one, and if it’s Moon Jae-in, we may be headed for a crisis in the alliance. If Moon takes his North Korea policy where I think he wants to take it, the Trump administration may view that alliance as more of a liability — or a bargaining chip — than an asset. It’s never too early for buyer’s remorse.

Continue Reading

China is waging economic war against S. Korea. We must stand by our ally.

Less than two years ago, I wrote of the coming Korea missile crisis. That crisis has now arrived. As I’ve documented at this site, that crisis is, in large part, a crisis of China’s making. North Korean missiles are made in part from Chinese technology, in large part from components purchased in or smuggled through China, and that are almost always procured by North Korean agents who operate more-or-less openly on Chinese soil. North Korea’s missiles ride on Chinese trucks. North Korea’s nukes and missiles were paid for by dollars laundered through Chinese banks, by commerce (much of it illicit) that passed through Chinese ports. 

Now that those missiles have matured into a grave threat to our allies in South Korea and Japan, and to the Americans (and their family members) stationed on allied soil, the U.S. has deployed defensive missiles to both countries. Now, China has the unmitigated gall to object to South Korea defending itself against a made-in-China threat from North Korea, presumably because missile defense weakens China’s own capacity to bully those allies, Taiwan, and perhaps even the United States.

Since 2006, China has voted for seven U.N. Security Council resolutions (1695, 1718, 1874, 2087, 2094, 2270 and 2321) and proceeded to violate all seven of them almost immediately. Why? Probably because China’s long-term strategic objective was to use North Korea to intimate South Korea, drive a wedge into the U.S.-South Korean alliance, push U.S. forces out of Korea, and then apply the same strategy to Japan. China probably realizes that by backing Kim Jong-un it’s riding a tiger, but it still prefers coddling a Caligula with nukes to allowing one free Korea to arise on its border. China’s grand strategy stands a strong chance of succeeding. Many South Koreans would sacrifice some of their personal freedom and national independence for fear of war or recession. Right now, the people of South Korea are looking to us. They wonder if they can still count on us.

That’s because China, which is opposed to unilateral sanctions except when it isn’t, has just started a trade war with South Korea to disarm the wrong Korea — the one that’s trying to defend itself against the missiles it helped North Korea build. China is closing South Korean stores on administrative pretexts, canceling group tours by Chinese tourists to South Korea, imposing pretexual inspections on South Korean agricultural products, and disrupting other South Korean investments in China. Militarily, we are standing by our ally. THAAD, though by no means a defense against all of North Korea’s threats to Seoul, can stop the largest missiles that carry the most dangerous (read: nuclear) warheads. Diplomatically, we’re saying we stand behind South Korea, and the Secretary of State has just announced a visit to Seoul. Those are good first steps toward showing U.S. resolve in standing by its ally. But if the U.S. isn’t just as prepared to stand by its ally economically as it is militarily and diplomatically, South Korea may well be finlandized as a Chinese satellite under a future President Moon Jae-in, who is no friend of America

To prevent this, the U.S. must send Beijing a strong message of economic deterrence. A trade war with China would be bad for both countries, but worse for China, with its heavy reliance on exports to the U.S. and the dollar economy. Beijing is using its economic power to attack U.S. security interests and those of our allies. We can’t stand for this. As with any other war not of our choice, economic war would come with costs. The question is whether the costs of not fighting back exceed the costs of fighting back. In this case, the cost of not fighting back could include the breakdown of the security system that has freed and enriched billions of people in northeast Asia, the U.S., and (indirectly) around the world. It would include a significant setback in our efforts to prevent North Korea from irreversibly defeating the cause of global nonproliferation. Measures to mitigate the impact on South Korea are only a partial answer. We must also deter a China that is testing a new president’s resolve with a strategy that is at least as dangerous as anything it has done in the South China Sea. That is worth bearing significant economic costs. And there are ways we can, and should, respond.

1. The first and most obvious target should be the Chinese banks that are breaking U.S. law to finance Kim Jong-un’s proliferation. That’s something we should be doing regardless of China’s bullying of South Korea, so arguably, it doesn’t belong on this list at all. Still, China’s bullying might affect the strategy we use and the aggressiveness with which we implement it.

2. U.N. Security Council resolutions require all ports to inspect cargo going to or coming from North Korea. China’s ports clearly aren’t doing that. Under section 205 of the NKSPEA, Customs and Border Protection has the authority to increase inspections of cargo coming from those noncompliant ports. Ports in China’s economically depressed northeast, particularly those that import coal in violation of U.N. sanctions, should be at the top of our target list (but only one or two smaller ports, initially). The effect of such a sanction would be greatly magnified if the South Korea and Japan join it; after all, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are China’s three largest trading partners. As they might say in New Jersey, it’s time for some traffic problems in Dandong. 

[Hey, it’s Donald. I think I have a job for you after all.]

3. China’s protectionism, censorship, and hacking make its IT companies good targets for sanctions, particularly through a more aggressive posture by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. and the aggressive policing of technology transfers. Yesterday’s actions against ZTE industries, which included the imposition of a $1 billion fine, are an example of the actions the U.S. could take to prevent China from stealing and selling U.S. technology to our enemies. Importantly, those actions suggest that the Trump administration has revoked China’s de facto immunity from the consequences of breaking U.S. law. As with our money laundering laws, we should enforce our export control and intellectually property laws regardless of how China treats North Korea, but China’s behavior against South Korea can influence our prosecutorial discretion in how aggressively we enforce those laws.

4. As mentioned, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan are China’s top three trading partners. Does China really want a trade war against all three of those economies when its banking sector is teetering under mountains of debt, when it’s trying to deflate a real estate bubble, and when it’s struggling to retain control of its currency and its stock market? Again, a trade war would be bad for everyone; the strategy is to deter China and force it to retreat by making sure it knows it would get the worst of one. The three allies share a strong interest in keeping the U.S.-Korea alliance strong to protect them from a common North Korean threat. For Japan, joining that economic alliance would have the advantage of balancing its villainous image in South Korea with the reality that it can also be a strong ally for South Korea’s security. By identifying appropriate targets in China for sectoral sanctions and combining their economic weight, the three allies can force China to back down and behave reasonably. Some of those targets might include products that include North Korean labor or materials, including seafood, textiles, and precious metals. Targets should be chosen to cause the maximum amount of economic and social unrest in China.

South Korea’s response to China has a political component, too. Its political right should play the anti-China nationalist card as shamelessly the political left played the anti-American nationalist card in 2003. It has criticized the left for cozying up to China in the midst of China’s economic bullying, and should intensify that criticism, making any preemptive capitulation to China an election-year liability for the political left. Both sides in Korea have long played the anti-Japan nationalism card, which continues to put distance between two natural allies over events that concluded 72 years ago. Not one comfort woman can still be saved from the predations of imperial Japan, but thousands of (North) Korean women who are sold as sex slaves in China still can be. I wonder if it might finally occur to Beijing that its bullying is backfiring if human rights activists put a statue of one of those trafficked women in front of the Chinese Embassy in Seoul. At the very least, it might make a few South Koreans stop to think about how China treats North Korean women, and whether that treatment is a metaphor for what China thinks of Koreans generally.

Continue Reading

Malaysia holds the upper hand in its hostage dispute with North Korea

Three weeks ago, Malaysia was one of North Korea’s most important trading partners — a haven, hub, and way station for its arms trafficking, money laundering, and slave labor. Money has long been the limiting reagent in Pyongyang’s experiment with phobocracy. It’s now clear that Kim Jong-un will soon pay a heavy financial and diplomatic price for the badly botched murder of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam with a persistent nerve agent in a crowded airport terminal in Kuala Lumpur last month. (I’ve described this as the first case of international terrorism using a weapon of mass destruction.)

The Malaysian investigation quickly implicated eight North Koreans, including a diplomat. Three of those men are still hiding in the North Korean Embassy. North Korea, with ghoulish obsession, demanded the repatriation of Kim Jong-nam’s body. Malaysia refused to release it without a DNA sample from a relative confirming the identity of the deceased. North Korea condemned the Malaysian investigation as biased, Malaysia expelled the North Korean ambassador, and North Korea expelled the Malaysian ambassador. And then, this happened:

Pyongyang, March 7 (KCNA) — The Protocol Department of the DPRK Foreign Ministry, at the request of a relevant organ, on Tuesday informed the Malaysian Embassy here of its decision to temporarily ban the exit of Malaysian citizens in the DPRK until the safety of the diplomats and citizens of the DPRK in Malaysia is fully guaranteed through the fair settlement of the case that occurred in Malaysia.

It expressed hope that the Malaysian Embassy here and the Foreign Ministry of Malaysia would fairly settle the current case as early as possible from the goodwill stand of setting store by and developing the bilateral relations.

In this period the diplomats and citizens of Malaysia may work and live normally under the same conditions and circumstances as before. -0- [KCNA]

Call the ACLU and petition the Ninth Circuit — Kim Jong-un just issued a #muslimban! Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak responded in kind:

[link]

The Malaysian government’s ban doesn’t just affect diplomats. The PM said “all North Korean citizens” and he meant it.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi made the announcement today in an immediate reaction to Pyongyang’s ban against Malaysians from leaving North Korea.

“As a response to foreign minister of North Korea, the Home Ministry via Immigration has released an immediate ruling that not one officer in Malaysia is to leave the country. “This is effective immediately to all exits of immigration nationwide,” he told a news conference here.

Ahmad Zahid also said the Cabinet will meet this Friday and discuss if it is to sever all ties with North Korea. He reiterated that Malaysia will not tolerate being accused of a murder conspiracy without proof.

“We have no intent to take any reciprocating action. But after this has been done by a country with diplomatic ties with Malaysia outside of the normal conventions of bilateral relationships, Malaysia is forced to take a similar action as they have manipulated the murder case here.

“We want to send a clear message, ‘Don’t point fingers at us and don’t look down upon Malaysia as (a) sovereign nation,” he said. [Malay Mail Online]

Reports that Malaysian diplomats were burning documents at their embassy in Pyongyang give you a good idea where that decision is headed. The Malaysian government is also reviewing trade relations with North Korea and was expected to make a decision by the end of the week.

“We don’t intend to retaliate but this is what must be done when a country that has diplomatic relations with Malaysia acts outside diplomatic norms,” Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Tuesday. “We want to send a clear message — do not point fingers at Malaysia and do not belittle Malaysia’s standing as a sovereign country that has carried out investigations professionally.” [Bloomberg]

Eleven Malaysians are now trapped inside North Korea, some of them at Sunan Airport. Three are embassy employees, six are their family members, and two are humanitarian aid workers for the World Food Program. (I wonder if the Ministry of State Security will send an officer to literally bite their hands, to perfect the metaphor.) There are about 300 North Koreans in Malaysia, including 170 coal miners laboring in brutal conditions in Sarawak. Authorities there are awaiting orders from K.L. about how to respond.

At this point, it’s useful to cite an authoritative definition of “hostage.” Legally, the U.S. Criminal Code only prohibits hostage-taking involving U.S. nationals, but otherwise defines “hostage taking” as “to detain another person in order to compel a third person or a governmental organization to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the person detained.” That sounds like what both governments are doing at this point, with two exceptions — the two North Korean non-diplomats who are hiding inside the North Korean embassy in Kuala Lumpur, and who are wanted by the police for questioning in the Kim Jong-nam murder investigation.

The common reaction to this, even in Malaysia, is to call it a “tit-for-tat.” My immediate reaction was also to view both sides as guilty of hostage-taking and violating the Vienna Convention, which guarantees diplomats freedom of movement and immunity from criminal prosecution. On closer examination, however, the Malaysians might have a case that their action is a lawful “countermeasure,” a doctrine with some basis in customary international law (start at Article 49).

But what the law allows isn’t necessarily the best policy, and I tend to think the Malaysians are going about this all wrong by lowering themselves to Pyongyang’s level. Their best leverage, after all, would consist of a series of perfectly legal acts. Begin with the fact that among some of those 300 North Koreans, not all of them likely want to go back to Pyongyang. That would go double for the ones who are involved in botching the hit on Kim Jong-nam. Regardless of whether the Malaysian government has a legal right to prevent the departure of the North Koreans — and their ban is probably disproportionate, if understandable — holding North Koreans as effective hostages isn’t their best form of leverage by a long shot.

Instead, the Malaysian government should initiate a series of criminal investigations of North Korean activities in Malaysia for violating U.N. sanctions, and start seizing property that belongs to the Reconnaissance General Bureau, Korea Mining Development Corporation, and other U.N.-designated entities. That approach has the advantages of being (a) perfectly legal, and (b) much more concerning to Pyongyang than actions that affect its citizens, who are all deemed more-or-less expendable anyway. To further increase the pressure on Pyongyang, Malaysia could guarantee each departing North Korean a lengthy unmonitored interview with the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, affording each departing North Korean the option to defect instead. Rewards and asylum could be offered to those who provide information leading to an arrest or conviction. Imagine the pressure that would put on Pyongyang. It might even be a useful experiment in how to negotiate with Pyongyang from strength.

Continue Reading

Yay, it happened! Jim Rogers got burned by hyping North Korea!

And just like that, crackpot investment advisor Jim Rogers joins the distinguished company of Hyundai Asan, Volvo, Yang Bin, David Chang and Robert Torricelli, Chung Mong-Hun, Roh Jeong-ho, and Orascom’s Naguib Sawaris, all of whom won Darwin Awards in North Korea. I’ve previously written about Rogers and his enthusiasm for North Korea and its worthless currency. That OFK post caught the eye of a New York Times reporter, who has just published a story on the relationship between Rogers and his self-described business partner, a Chinese entity called Unaforte:

“It’s very exciting. The kid has been opening up North Korea,” Mr. Rogers said in an interview, referring to Kim Jong-un, the country’s ruler.

But North Korea can be a murky place to tread — as Mr. Rogers’s experience shows.

A Hong Kong company called Unaforte that is involved in several North Korean businesses named Mr. Rogers as a shareholder a year ago, according to a corporate filing. Investing in a North Korean business like that would probably violate American sanctions if it happened now, though experts say it was legal at the time. [NYT, Patrick Boehler & Ryan McMorrow]

In this case, “experts” means me. Rogers’s investment came just a month before President Obama signed Executive Order 13722, which imposed sectoral sanctions on North Korea’s transportation, mining, energy, and financial services industries. That E.O. was enough to drive investor and fund manager James Passin out of North Korea. Before that, however, our threadbare North Korea sanctions probably didn’t prohibit what Rogers did. Still, staying one step ahead of the law doesn’t mean one isn’t stepping in something.

Mr. Rogers said he gave Unaforte $100 as a token of good will but never expected that it would name him as a shareholder. Asked about his stake in the company in October, he interrupted an interview with The New York Times to call Unaforte and told the English-speaking sister of its founder that the company had agreed he could not be a shareholder.

Speaking into his phone, Mr. Rogers said, “I know I have told you, ‘Never, never, never.’”

Unaforte no longer lists Mr. Rogers as a shareholder in its filings but will not release shareholder records that might show more details about the shares given to Mr. Rogers. Officials at Hong Kong’s corporate registry said they were investigating whether Unaforte is complying with the city’s disclosure laws. Unaforte did not respond to emailed questions for comment. [NYT]

The Times chronicles how Rogers quickly distanced himself from Unaforte once its reporters started asking questions (“I make speeches for hundreds of people.”). At one time, Unaforte featured Rogers prominently in its promotional materials. Its founder, Zhao Chunhui, calls himself “Jim Rogers’s business partner in China.” Then, a Unaforte website marketing its North Korea investments — a bank, an office park, and a stake in a gold mine — “went offline after The Times began to ask about its businesses.” On March 17, 2016, two days after President Obama signed EO 13722, Rogers wrote to Unaforte, asking “that it return his $100 and take back an unspecified number of shares.”

To make matters worse, Unaforte also drew a mention in the latest report of the U.N. Panel of Experts, for setting up a bank in the Rason Special Economic Zone. Sorry, my WordPress installation doesn’t read hanja:

221. A Hong Kong, China, company, Unaforte (?????????), with a Yanbian branch (?????) established the First Eastern Bank (????) in Rason in 2014 as a subordinate enterprise to provide financial support and loans to Chinese investors in mining and real estate projects in Rason (see annex 15-11). The bank is licensed by the Central Bank of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (see annex 15-12) and provides loans to Chinese individuals and companies in the Rason area. In its promotional materials, Unaforte claims: “The [First Eastern] Bank is fully independent and does not require proof of identity. It is not subject to the jurisdiction of China or [the] Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and is not required to report to the Chinese government or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea government!” (see annex 15-13). The Panel notes that foreign nationals holding accounts in banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would be a violation under resolution 2321 (2016).

Under sanctions adopted by the U.N. Security Council last year, the Far Eastern Bank must now be closed. Specifically, Paragraph 31 of UNSCR 2321, adopted on 30 November 2016, requires Member States to close all existing representative offices, subsidiaries or banking accounts in the DPRK within 90 days. UNSCR 2270, paragraph 33, requires Member States to “prohibit in their territories the opening and operation of new branches, subsidiaries, and representative offices of DPRK banks,” to “prohibit financial institutions within their territories or subject to their jurisdiction from establishing new joint ventures,” except with a U.N. Committee’s advance approval, and requires member states “to close such existing branches, subsidiaries and representative offices, and also to terminate such joint ventures [and] ownership interests.”

Previously, Leo Byrne of NK News also reported on Unaforte’s exports of gold jewelry to Hawaii. The gold was allegedly mined in North Korea; thus, exports to the U.S. could have violated a 2011 executive order prohibiting imports from North Korea, except pursuant to a Treasury Department license. Rogers comes across looking like a fool, a charlatan, and a generally amoral person, but from a strictly legal perspective, not even he can be faulted for ex-post facto sanctions violations. There’s no evidence that Rogers knew of the gold jewelry exports to the U.S., but if he did, that might be his greatest legal risk.

Continue Reading

U.N. report: SWIFT banking network violated North Korea asset freeze

Since last year, this blog has covered SWIFT’s continued provision of financial messaging services to North Korean banks, despite suspicions that North Korea was involved in stealing almost $100 million from the Bangladesh Bank by hacking into SWIFT’s messaging software. Later, I wrote about an effort in the last Congress to ban North Korean banks from SWIFT, mirroring a sanction that was one of our most effective measures against Iran. SWIFT is effectively the postal service of the financial system, sending instructions between banks to credit and debit accounts to facilitate payments. Losing SWIFT access makes it slow, costly, and inefficient for a bank to operate.

The U.N. Panel of Experts’ latest report, released over the weekend, now confirms that SWIFT continued to provide services to three North Korean banks — Bank of East Land, Korea Daesong Bank, and Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation, the object of this recent Justice Department indictment — long after those banks were designated by the U.N. and the U.S. Treasury Department. Worse, the Belgian government authorized that. Generally speaking, both sets of designations require the freezing of any of the target’s assets, and prohibit any action that facilitates the target’s transfer of property or interests in property.

248. In response to inquiries by the Panel, SWIFT confirmed to the Belgian authorities that it provided financial messaging services to designated banks of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. As part of its procedure for doing so, SWIFT requests authorization from the Government to receive the moneys owed for the services. Upon receipt of such authorization, SWIFT receives payment for its services from the designated banks.  The payments are then entered in its books and recorded as revenue. The Belgian authorities have authorized SWIFT to receive the amounts set out in tables 13 and 14 from designated banks in exchange for the provision of financial messaging services, the provision of the SWIFT handbook, training in the use of the SWIFT network and maintenance costs.

SWIFT stopped providing services to four other North Korean banks — Amroggang Development Banking Corporation, Daedong Credit Bank, Tanchon Commercial Bank, and Korea United Development Bank — not because SWIFT was even minimally principled, but because “those banks themselves requested SWIFT to do so.”

Paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 requires all Member States, and all persons subject to their jurisdiction, to “ensure that any funds, financial assets or economic resources are prevented from being made available by their nationals or by any persons or entities within their territories, to or for the benefit of” designated entities. The whole point of financial messaging services is to make economic resources available. I can’t for the life of me see how financial messaging on behalf of designated North Korean banks is anything but a clear violation of 1718.

The unavoidable fact of SWIFT messaging is that it enables banks to effect financial transfers. Thus, messaging services that facilitate designated banks’ financial transactions violate a Member State’s duty (in this case, Belgium’s) to “prevent” the funds “from being made available” to designated entities, per paragraph 8(d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 (2013), and paragraph 10 of UNSCR 2270 (2016). To authorize the acceptance of payment from designated DPRK entities would permit those entities to purchase goods and services and access the global economy, which would contravene the plain meaning of an asset freeze. That’s exactly what Belgium and SWIFT did here. Bear in mind that last summer, the Justice Department indicted Dandong Hongxiang for using an off-the-books ledger system to move funds for one of the very same banks.

Then, there is the question of whether SWIFT provided “financial services” to North Korean banks. In relevant part, Paragraph 11 of UNSCR 2094 requires Member States to “prevent the provision of financial services . . . by their nationals or entities organized under their laws . . . of any financial or other assets or resources . . . that could contribute to” activities prohibited by the Security Council’s resolutions. By citing Paragraph 8 (d) of UNSCR 1718 (2006), this provision specifically applies to entities that have been designated by the Security Council.

Now, I take it that SWIFT’s highly-paid lawyers and lobbyists (at least, more highly paid than me) have gone to great lengths to persuade people that financial messaging services aren’t “financial services.” In paragraph 249 of the Panel’s report, Belgium cites domestic and EU law to that effect. At best, that’s a valiant effort to make chicken salad from chicken shit. To its credit, the Panel didn’t buy that, although it focused on a different angle — the receipt of fees by SWIFT from North Korean banks.

The Panel notes that, in the absence of a determination by the Committee that these payments fall under the exemptions in paragraphs 9 (a) and/or (b) of resolution 1718 (2006), the receipt of funds from a designated entity is a violation of the asset freeze pursuant to paragraph 8 (d) of resolution 1718 (2006) and paragraphs 8 and 11 of resolution 2094 (2013).

Myself, I’m much less concerned about the minuscule fees SWIFT received — a few thousand dollars — than the (undoubtedly, much larger) sums SWIFT’s messaging services helped those designated banks to move.

With U.N. resolutions, we’re lucky if many states’ officials read them at all. For the resolutions to have any chance to work as intended, thousands of officials in hundreds of member states have to interpret and apply them consistently. Not all of those officials are banking lawyers. Pedantic interpretations of resolutions that fly in the face of their plain meaning are a recipe for exceptionalism. That’s what happens when a Member State’s interpretation of its domestic law is allowed to contravene the plain meaning and purpose of the resolutions.

Belgium, of all places, now finds itself cast as a unilateralist rogue state defying U.N. resolutions and flirting with money laundering. Given SWIFT’s influence on both sides of the Atlantic, it probably saw itself as above the law. There is nothing on SWIFT’s website reacting to that revelation at the time of posting. But with the truth of SWIFT’s enabling of dirty North Korean banks now revealed, it’s hard for me to believe that it will be business as usual. At a bare minimum, I’d expect SWIFT to disconnect the three designated banks. The next move may well be up to Congress. For SWIFT, that’s a lot of risk to take to feed the hand that bites them.

~   ~   ~

Update:

Continue Reading

Class struggle in North Korea

“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guildmaster and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, that each time ended, either in the revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” 

– Karl Marx, The Communist Manifesto

And yet, no place is quite so perfect a laboratory for Marx’s ideas of class struggle and alienation as the state that some neo-Marxists claim as a paradise of socialism, even as others wishfully declare that capitalism is breaking out there. Both views are wrong, of course. North Korea hasn’t been socialist for a long time. Its officials are accomplished profiteers and money launderers. It practices economic totalitarianism because that serves its greater goal of political totalitarianism. One form of economic totalitarianism is as good as the next:

Recent reports suggest that the consumption gap is widening in Pyongyang, increasing tension between North Korean residents and the regime. According to sources inside the country, the newly affluent middle class, known as the donju, are fueling the trend by providing premium high quality products to wealthy customers while offering sub-standard items to ordinary citizens.

“Pyongyang, the heart of the revolution, is becoming a place of severe income disparity – even more so than in a capitalist state. This is because the privileged classes are in control of the Pyongyang Department Store [No.1], the General Markets, and the trading infrastructure,” a source in South Pyongan Province told Daily NK on February 27. [Daily NK]

What the report really describes is state capitalism, or crony capitalism, in which most Pyongyang residents rely for their needs on markets that are rigged by a predatory oligarchy that profits from its political connections, not its merits or talents. Party officials, their wives, and their relatives have used those connections to seize control of state stores, markets, and the trade in the goods that fill them. They have a de facto monopoly that excludes all but the highest rungs of North Korea’s political caste system:
What this has resulted in is a situation in which all the prosperous individuals are either direct relatives of officials or those who donate significant loyalty funds to government departments. Having absolute power over trading infrastructure, the donju have taken control of the market in Pyongyang with the authority to import foreign goods freely, and price them however they wish.
Any poli-sci professor at Berkeley could have told you the inevitable outcome of that:
As a result, many residents are feeling alienated from the benefits of marketization, and complaints against the regime are rising. In addition, criticisms are increasingly targeting the wealthy class who are openly squandering their money while maintaining their wealth through the political control of enterprise assets.
Consequently, the report says, “the majority of” Pyongyang residents have come to detest the donju and their conspicuous consumption.
Some of the more opinionated residents are saying that, ‘They (the cadres and donju) should be bumped off first if a war breaks out,'” a source in Pyongyang added.
Marx may or may not have said that (though Douglas Adams said something very much like it). Incidentally, North Korean defectors have told me that “when the war comes” is code talk for revolution. This is the natural result of Kim Jong-un’s policy of enriching the party elites while keeping everyone else just hungry enough to control them efficiently and enslave them profitably. Is there some law against the CIA sowing Marxist agitprop? It is malpractice that our own government’s broadcasts and information operations fail to exploit the timeless and universal appeal of class struggle, given the legitimacy of its basis in the capital of such a dangerous enemy.

Continue Reading

N. Korea, dissent & desertions: as internal control tightens, border control degrades

I haven’t yet had time to read Nat Kretchun’s new report on the circulation of samizdat inside North Korea, but ReutersThe Washington Post, and Sokeel Park helpfully summarize its bleak findings: Kim Jong-un is not a Swiss-educated reformer, is not bringing Glasnost to North Korea, has turned Koryolink into a tool for hunting down dissent and dissenters, and is slowly winning the war to restore thought control. (Still unanswered is whether Syracuse University’s “engagement” program that taught Pyongyang how to do digital watermarking also helped it perfect its digital censorship.) North Koreans believe it has become more dangerous to watch foreign dramas under His Porcine Majesty’s rule. The only small bright spot is that DVDs and USBs with forbidden content continue to circulate. It will be difficult (if not impossible) to re-indoctrinate generations of disillusioned North Koreans, but highly possible for the state to isolate and repress them.

Still, it’s a profound testament to the power of hope that people would risk a slow death in a prison camp for a rare glimpse at a life worth living, and unfortunate that our own efforts to leverage that power are still in their infancy. South Korea, which knows the power of hallyu, is mulling ways to help spread information into North Korea, but again finds its efforts hobbled by the left-wing, anti-anti-North Korean politicians. One simple and powerful first step would be to extend the range of existing South Korean cell networks. A seemingly unrelated report suggests a second strategy, by highlighting the greatest vulnerability in Kim Jong-un’s control over his own population — low morale and indiscipline among the border guard force. Yes, it happened again:

The North Korean soldiers deserted their posts along the border area with China and illegally entered Changbai County in the country’s northeastern province of Jilin on Tuesday, according to the source.

“Chinese authorities notified residents to be on alert and immediately report their location if they are observed,” the source added. [Yonhap]

Although the Yonhap report doesn’t specifically say that the soldiers deserted, the fact that Chinese police are still looking for them strongly suggests that. Incidents like his have risen sharply since 2014. I’ve compiled reports about other defections, fraggings, desertions, and cross-border crimes by border guards here, and reports of similar disciplinary breakdowns within the North Korean military as a whole here (there’s plenty to read at those links if you’re interested in researching that topic further). This isn’t even the first such incident this year. In January, a border guard shot and killed seven of his comrades. Yonhap mentions just a few of those incidents in its report.

In July 2016, five runaway North Korean soldiers broke into residents’ houses in the county and committed robbery. Chinese police arrested two although two policemen suffered gunshot wounds in the process.

In December 2014, a North Korean army deserter killed four Chinese citizens in a robbery attempt in the Chinese border city of Helong, while an year earlier, a North Korean defector in his 20s killed an elderly Chinese couple in the Chinese border city of Yanji and stole 20,000 yuan (US$2,900). The North Korean defector was caught by Chinese authorities after fleeing to Beijing.

“Since the 2000s, worsening food shortages seems to be pushing North Korean soldiers into deserting their posts,” another source said. “North Korea seems to be suffering from more food shortages since massive flooding hit the country’s northeastern region in late August.” [Yonhap]

The immediate cause of all of these incidents is the fact that the soldiers aren’t being fed or paid properly. Look further behind that, and you find that the soldiers and non-commissioned officers had come to rely on bribes from smugglers to supplement their pay. Kim Jong-un’s crackdown on refugee flows, cell phones, and smuggling has forced the soldiers to rely on a commissary system that’s corrupt, inefficient, and incapable of providing for them.

So how, exactly, does this suggest a strategy? Because North Korea’s domestic economy is so barren, the Ministry of State Security and Reconnaissance General Bureau fund themselves with foreign trading companies and businesses. The same is almost certainly true of other internal security forces, including the border guard force. Targeting those funding sources with sanctions, money laundering prosecutions, forfeitures, and asset freezes would further strain the commissary system, morale, and discipline, and deny those forces the funds to buy materials, parts, and equipment like cell phone trackers. That, in turn, would widen the cracks in Pyongyang’s control over the borders and help smugglers get more DVDs, USBs, radios, cell phones, and human beings across the border.

As I’ve often argued, samizdat will not seriously threaten Kim Jong-un’s control over North Korea until North Koreans have some means of organizing with each other digitally. As I’ve also argued, those means are probably no more than a few years away if we leverage the experiments of Google, Facebook, or other innovative technologies. These strategies aren’t mutually exclusive; indeed, they can be mutually complementary. It isn’t a question of sanctions or information operations or diplomacy. It takes more than a tuba to perform a symphony. It’s all of those instruments playing at once, as long as they play the same music.

Continue Reading

Weirdly, corroboration emerges that Kim Won-hong was ousted for “human rights abuses”

Charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets at the Indy 500.

– Apocalypse Now

Earlier this month, when the purge or demotion of State Security Minister Kim Won-hong was first reported, I seized on one rather bizarre part of the justification for his ouster from that key post for “corruption, abuse of power and human rights abuses.” North Korea has always angrily denied the existence of human rights abuses and called itself a paradise for its citizens. Such a concession would be extraordinary for a regime that prioritizes its own stability above everything and the rights of individuals beneath everything. It would imply that individuals have rights in a real way, as opposed to the theoretical rights guaranteed to them under North Korea’s farcical constitution. It would imply that the regime saw the perception that it denied individuals their rights as a threat to the stability it prizes over everything else, and perhaps, to its access to the global economy.

At the time, I said it would be important to watch for corroboration — first, that Kim Won-hong really had been ousted, and second, that human rights abuses really were part of the regime’s justification for that. As to the first, I’ll refer you to Michael Madden, who reviews the evidence to support the claim. As to the second, we now have a report from inside the MSS (formerly known as the SSD):

In the aftermath of the purge of Kim Won Hong, the former head of North Korea’s State Security Department, Kim Jong Un has reportedly ordered the State Security Department to cease human rights abuses.

A source in Ryanggang Province told Daily NK on February 8 that an emergency meeting was held at the Ryanggang Province branch of the State Security Department (SSD) for three days from January 25 to 27. During the meeting, the decision to dismiss Kim Wong Hong (sic) and execute five SSD cadres was announced, as well as orders to eliminate human rights abuses such as beatings and the torture of residents.

“Statements such as ‘You should not abuse your power to make money,’ and ‘These corrupt actions are turning the residents away from the Republic (North Korea)’ were also made during the meeting,” the source said. [Daily NK]

Of course, we are speaking here of North Korea’s Gestapo and SS — the agency that controls the borders, runs the prison camps, carries out the purges, and maintains the regime’s state of terror over the people. That’s why it’s appropriate to treat this report with as much skepticism as the North Korean people themselves are treating it.

However, residents have been responding coldly. The SSD has already established itself as “nothing but evil in the minds of residents,” she said, and no one expects that there will be any improvement in human rights.

“Residents are mostly pessimistic, saying, ‘I am not interested in whether Kim Won Hong was purged or SSD cadres were executed,’ or ‘The vampires sucking our blood and sweat remain,'” she noted.

“Some residents are also saying, ‘The [state-run publication] Rodong Sinmun has been claiming that there are no human rights violations, but now the regime admits that it has been abusing human rights after all.'” [Daily NK]

One interpretation is that this is really an anti-corruption drive to maintain the MSS’s discipline. The report also notes that some MSS agents are leaking news of the MSS’s abuses, which are damaging the regime’s standing. Another possibility is that because the regime knows these reports will leak out, the lectures are meant to disinform us. The North Korean official responsible may be seeking to mitigate his image, or to avoid sanctions or prosecution. And given Kim Won-hong’s seniority, there’s really only one official we could be talking about here. That, in turn, would infer that Kim Jong-un is hedging his own bets about his own future.

Finally, consider the possibility that North Korean officials, including Kim Jong-un himself, really believe their own propaganda, and really do believe (in their own strange way) that they’ve created a paradise for the North Korean people. Kim Jong-un has undoubtedly led a sheltered existence. He does not travel alone or visit any site that has not been carefully prepared and polished. For obvious reasons, he cannot be inconspicuous among his rail-thin subjects. Of course, many of the purges, killings, and other atrocities the regime has carried out could not have happened without his personal approval. Psychopaths always find ways of justifying such crimes. It is almost as certain that most of the rapes, killings, and myriad violations of rights of low-ranking North Koreans were arbitrary acts by lower-ranking guards, soldiers, and officials acting with a sense of omnipotence and impunity. Kim Jong-un could easily believe that all of those crimes are a droit du seigneur.

It’s almost as if Kim Jong-un had some unique insight into the arguments that prosecutors could make against him.

More likely, however, is that Kim Jong-un sees negative foreign and domestic sentiments about his rule as a growing threat to his own survival. I’ll be the first to admit my astonishment at the regime’s apparent vulnerability to the power of words alone, but of course, those words also have important diplomatic, security, and financial consequences. There is ample evidence to suggest that North Koreans are frequently expressing (and occasionally, acting on) their discontent. There is also evidence that this discontent is affecting the regime’s hold over its elite, including the most trusted of the elites, whom it sends overseas to maintain friendly relations with foreign governments, maintain access to foreign markets, and earn hard currency. There is some evidence that Pyongyang may be feeling some of the financial effects, too.

Calls by South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se for Kim Jong-un to be summoned to a tribunal, and for North Korea’s U.N. privileges to be suspended, will be further reason for Kim Jong-un to worry. By persuading him that the world is closing in on him, and that his regime is fraying from within, we will gain more leverage to force him to negotiate for verifiable reforms. When Kim Jong-un is more afraid of not reforming than he is of reforming, those negotiations will have some prospect of eventual success.

Continue Reading

North Korea should negotiate with the U.S.: No Rodong Sinmun op-ed, ever

This was supposed to be a big week for talk-to-North-Korea crowd, a constituency that’s well-represented in certain academic circles and op-ed pages … and pretty much nowhere else. Track 1.5 talks between current North Korean diplomats and former U.S. diplomats were supposed to begin tomorrow — in Washington, no less. This aroused certain Nobel Peace Prize aspirants and their megaphones in the New York Times and the AP about the prospect that Donald Trump want to might cut a deal with North Korea.

Personally, I’m not privy to the discussions inside the White House. I don’t know if the President wants to cut a deal or not, what kind of deal he’d cut, or who he’d cut it with. I don’t know if the administration asked anyone to convey any messages or what those messages might have been. Officially, Track 1.5 and Track 2 talks aren’t official, but Yun Byung-se, Seoul’s indispensable man, saw that possibility as significant enough to ask Secretary of State Rex Tillerson not to cut a freeze deal and stick to C.V.I.D.

By now, it has occurred to the wisest ones among you that our own arguments and negotiations about talks are an exercise in masturbatory diplomacy if the North Koreans aren’t even showing us any leg. After all, they’ve said over and over and over and over again that they aren’t going to denuclearize, period. Two weeks ago, the Rodong Sinmun specifically rejected Jeffrey Lewis’s bizarre proposal to offer North Korea help with its “satellite” program (which would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions currently in force) in exchange for a freeze on its missile programs. And in the week leading up to the scheduled talks, Pyongyang said this:

There is a heated argument among the political circles in the U.S. about whether the goal of denuclearizing north Korea” is possible or not. Minju Joson Tuesday observes in a commentary in this regard: It is nonsensical to argue about this matter and an attempt to realize the above-said scenario is as foolish as trying to turn back the clock of history.  [KCNA, Feb. 21, 2017]

And, lest anyone suspect that these were the words of a rogue North Korean editor, this:

The DPRK is a nuclear power possessed of even H-bomb which the world calls “absolute weaponry”. The increased nuclear threat to the DPRK will put the security of the U.S. mainland in a greater peril.

The Trump administration has to bear in mind that it may lead the U.S. to its final ruin should it follows in the footsteps of the Obama group which faced only denunciation and derision by the world people, being branded as a defeater for its pipe dream of leading the DPRK to “change” and “collapse” during its tenure of office.

Neither high-intensity nuclear threat and blackmail nor economic sanctions will work on the DPRK.

The U.S. has to face up to the reality and get awakened from pipe dream. The present U.S. administration has to make a bold decision of policy switchover, not trying to repeat its totally bankrupt anti-DPRK policy. [Rodong Sinmun, Feb. 21, 2017]

In the end, the White House decided that it might have sent the wrong message to grant the North Koreans visas and welcome them to Washington just two weeks after eight of their countrymen — including one of their diplomats! — committed an act of international terrorism with a weapon of mass destruction in a crowded airport terminal, in a peaceful and friendly country. After all, unless I’m overlooking something, this was the world’s first state-sponsored terrorist attack with a weapon of mass destruction.

Invariably, the usual suspects will use the denial of the visas to blame Trump for the fact that the talks didn’t happen. But given the inflexible position the North Koreans took going in, the better question is why we should have bothered at all. If North Korea’s nukes aren’t on the table, what conceivable benefit can we derive from negotiations? I suppose there’s value in sending certain messages to the North Koreans — putting them on notice that tougher sanctions are coming, and warning them of the consequences of attacking civilian targets. But there are other times and places to send those messages without committing the grave symbolic and diplomatic error of welcoming Pyongyang’s diplomats to Washington at such an inappropriate time.

But those are conversations, not negotiations, which is what the North Korea doves want, and which is also what the U.S. has tried to start again, and again, and again, even after North Korea reneged on the agreements it did make, again and again and again. Maybe, then, the North Korea doves should stop submitting all of those op-eds to The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Atlantic. Maybe they should start sending them to the editors of The Rodong Sinmun and KCNA and The Minju Choson instead. Let me know if you ever see one published.

Continue Reading

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.

Continue Reading