Koryo Asia to Buy U.S.-Sanctioned North Korean Bank (Update2)

Bloomberg
Bradley K. Martin

Koryo Asia Ltd., a London-based financial adviser, said it will buy North Korea’s Daedong Credit Bank for an undisclosed amount and lobby the U.S. to lift sanctions on the foreign-run bank.

Daedong Credit is among North Korean banks whose accounts in Macau’s Banco Delta Asia SARL have been frozen since September 2005 after the U.S. Treasury Department alleged Banco Delta laundered money from North Korea and worked with front companies trafficking drugs for the communist state. The Macau government has taken control of the bank.

The value of Daedong Credit “would be enhanced if we can resolve the sanctions issue with the U.S.,” Koryo Asia chairman Colin McAskill said in an e-mail interview. Koryo Asia is adviser to London-based Chosun Development & Investment Fund LP, which aims to raise $50 million for investments in North Korea.

North Korea has demanded removal of the financial sanctions before it will return to six-nation talks to prevent the country from developing nuclear weapons. The U.S. and China urged North Korea to resume the talks that include South Korea, Russia and Japan, after the country in July tested a missile that may have the capability to reach the U.S.

Daedong Credit’s general manager Nigel Cowie confirmed the sale and that he would stay on. He declined further comment. Cowie said in an interview last year that the bank’s assets –including those frozen in Macau — totaled around $10 million.

A former HSBC Holding Plc banker, Cowie was hired in the mid- 1990s by Peregrine Investment Holdings Ltd. to start the bank. Following Peregrine’s 1998 collapse, Cowie and three other investors bought the 70 percent foreign stake from the liquidator in 2000.

Transparent

Koryo Asia signed an agreement to buy the majority share in Daedong through a wholly owned subsidiary that McAskill, 65, did not name. The majority shareholders had approached Koryo Asia to propose the sale, he said.

McAskill said he won’t take a direct management role in the bank, instead serving as a consultant to persuade U.S. officials to release as much as $7 million of Daedong’s and its customers’ assets in Macau. The total of frozen North Korean bank assets in Macau is about $24 million.

McAskill’s argument that Daedong Credit Bank serves only foreign, not North Korean, customers and that its transactions are legal and transparent may not win an audience at the U.S. Treasury Department.

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

Asked if the purchase of Daedong Credit Bank is a big gamble, McAskill said, “Not a gamble — a gambit.”

He said his strategy is to demonstrate that Levey’s blanket condemnation of all North Korea-related finance is counter to U.S. interests.

Exempting Daedong on its merits from the sanctions would bring a potentially big payoff, he said, “an atmosphere in which Kim Jong-il can consider a return to the six-party talks.”

Anselmo Teng, chairman of the Macau Monetary Authority, didn’t immediately return a phone call and e-mail to his office seeking comment on the sale and any impact the ownership change may have on the status of Daedong’s Banco Delta Asia accounts.

Korean Investment

McAskill said the Chosun Development & Investment Fund LP aims to raise funds for “transaction-based” investments, such as procuring mining equipment and receiving mine output in return.

“We believe we will fully subscribe the fund from investors in Europe, Asia, the People’s Republic of China and possibly South Korea,” he said. “Global investor interest in this potential emerging market was not affected by the missile launches in July,” he said, without giving details.

Taking over the bank “gives us a legitimate foothold and provides a conduit for investment in the country, whether through Chosun Fund or other sources,” McAskill said. “In the long term, the goal is to facilitate the resuscitation of the legitimate economy.”

Chosun Fund, managed by London-based Anglo-Sino Capital Partners Limited, is denominated in U.S. dollars. If the sanctions issue cannot be resolved, the fund has the option to switch to denomination in euros or pounds sterling, McAskill said.

“There’s no point in taking in U.S. funds if the United States is going to try and block them,” he said.

Room 39

The minority owner of Daedong Credit is Korea Daesong Bank, a unit of North Korea’s Daesong Group.

A 1995 U.S. government study cited close ties between Daesong and Room 39, an office of the ruling North Korean Workers’ Party said to handle foreign exchange-gathering projects for the country’s leader.

McAskill said the minority owner does not run the bank. Daedong is “not only majority foreign-owned and foreign- controlled but also foreign-managed,” he said, adding he was given access to all of Daedong’s activities and concluded it’s a legitimate business.

Only North Korean-owned banks can do business with state enterprises and North Korean individuals, Cowie said last year, so Daedong’s customers are all foreign — mostly Chinese, Japanese and Western individuals and institutions.

As of Aug. 17, that had not convinced Levey at the U.S. Treasury.

“The U.S. continues to encourage financial institutions to carefully assess the risk of holding any North Korea-related accounts,” he said.

The undersecretary traveled in Asia in July to push that line, which resulted in the closure of some North Korean banks’ accounts in Vietnam.

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