Daedong fights U.S.-imposed sanctions on North Korea banks

International Herald Tribune
Donald Greenlees
3/8/2007

Last August, Colin McAskill, a British businessman, agreed to buy a small bank in North Korea. On the face of it, Daedong Credit Bank was not a brilliant investment.

The agreement that McAskill signed with the management of Daedong Credit at a hotel in Seoul came as the bank was caught in the grip of financial sanctions that had virtually cut off North Korea from the global financial system.

Financial institutions around the world were shunning any links to North Korean banks, making it almost impossible to transact business.

Daedong Credit was using couriers to carry cash in and out of the country in amounts as high as $2.6 million because it could not make electronic transfers to other banks.

Since September 2005, Daedong Credit had also been fighting to recover $7 million that had been frozen in a Macao bank as part of efforts by the United States to put a financial squeeze on North Korea over alleged illicit financial transactions. This was a big sum for Daedong Credit. When McAskill had examined the bank’s books, its total assets were just $10 million.

None of this has deterred him. He said during an interview in Hong Kong that he planned to execute the sale agreement within the next two weeks and take full control of the only foreign-managed bank in North Korea. The Hong Kong- based Koryo Asia, chaired by McAskill, will take control of the banking license and a 70 percent stake owned by British investors through a Virgin Islands company. The remaining 30 percent is held by the state-owned Daesong Bank. “I think it’s a magnificent deal,” McAskill said, although he would not disclose the purchase price. “The bank has been running for 12 years. It is trusted and it has been profitable since day one.”

Despite McAskill’s optimism, the future of Daedong Credit has been under a cloud since the imposition of the U.S.- orchestrated banking embargo on North Korea 18 months ago and the viability of the business remains precarious.

Even amid signs of a thaw in relations between Pyongyang and Washington, the start of a bilateral dialogue that began in New York on Monday and an agreement in six-nation talks in Beijing on Feb. 13 to start to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, analysts say banks in North Korea will struggle to restore contacts with the global financial system.

The trigger for the financial embargo of North Korea was a declaration by the U.S. Treasury Department under section 311 of the Patriot Act that the Banco Delta Asia, based in Macao, was a “primary money laundering concern” because of its links to a number of North Korean banks, individuals and companies alleged to have engaged in product and currency counterfeiting, drug trafficking and weapons proliferation.

The U.S. and Macanese authorities began separate investigations into Banco Delta Asia and the bank was placed under Macao government supervision.

Along with about 50 North Korean banks, trading companies and individuals, Daedong Credit had its account frozen. The total amount put into “suspense accounts,” according to Banco Delta Asia, was about $25 million, with Daedong Credit accounting for the largest share. Since then, almost all foreign banks that had correspondent relations with Daedong Credit have severed contact for fear of being excluded from the U.S. financial system.

Jack Pritchard, president of the Korea Economic Institute in Washington, said it was unlikely that the United States would send an explicit signal to the financial community to resume trading with North Korea, regardless of whether Pyongyang starts to address concerns about its foreign financial transactions.

He said that although a portion of the frozen money was likely to be released soon, there would not be a “100 percent reversal” of the American stance on financial transactions with North Korea.

Daedong Credit is likely to be one of the first North Korean account holders in Banco Delta Asia to get its money back from the Macao Monetary Authority where it has been earning no interest.

In recent months, McAskill has circled the globe from his home in London acting under a mandate from Daedong Credit to persuade officials in Washington and Macao to release the account. At 66, McAskill has spent 28 years doing business with North Korea, including as a consultant to North Korean banks on debt negotiations and helping to operate North Korean foreign gold sales. He said that at no stage in his meetings with officials from either the U.S. or Macao governments had he seen any specific reason for freezing the Daedong Credit money or been told of any specific allegation about its origins.

McAskill has produced what he calls a “dossier of proof” to establish the identity of all the customers whose money is frozen and the sources of the money. Since it was founded by the failed Hong Kong finance group Peregrine in 1995, Daedong Credit has filled a valuable niche serving the foreign community in Pyongyang. It has about 200 customers among foreign-invested joint ventures, foreign relief organizations and foreign individuals, according to McAskill. The biggest single amount frozen in Macao is $2.6 million belonging to British American Tobacco, which owns a cigarette plant in North Korea.

“We irrefutably established that the money was legal,” McAskill said. “The U.S. Treasury have been going around the world saying to banks ‘close this account, close that account’ but not offering any proof of wrongdoing.” He said his due diligence of Daedong Credit had convinced him that it was a “fully legal, legitimate operation” that did not manage state accounts or had ever been connected to illicit practices.

One of the Treasury’s main allegations against Banco Delta Asia is that it facilitated the spread of counterfeit $100 bills. But McAskill said Daedong Credit had put $49 million into Banco Delta Asia in 2005 and all that money had been forwarded to HSBC for verification.

Only three of the $100 notes belonging to Daedong Credit were confiscated because they were “suspect,” he said.

McAskill has charged the Treasury with harassment after two correspondent banks — one in Vietnam and the other in Mongolia — informed Daedong Credit late last year that they would immediately close accounts because of pressure from the United States.

But it is likely to prove difficult to persuade banks, nervous about the effect on Banco Delta Asia of the long- running Treasury investigation, to take the risk of dealing with a North Korean counterpart, regardless of the pedigree of its shareholders and board.

Last week, at a meeting in Macao, McAskill was finally told by the head of a government-appointed committee supervising Banco Delta Asia, Herculano de Sousa, that it was likely that the money in Daedong Credit would be returned by the end of March.

In the meeting, McAskill told de Sousa that once the funds were freed, Daedong Credit intended to leave the money in Banco Delta Asia and resume operating its old account.

But Banco Delta Asia has informed the U.S. Treasury that as part of its cleanup both the administrative committee and the shareholders were adamant that they no longer would do business with any North Korea entities. In doing so, the bank hopes to avoid the United States making good on a threat to ban Banco Delta Asia from having any correspondent relationships with U.S. banks.

Still, McAskill insisted that Daedong Credit has not broken any law in Macao or elsewhere and that there were no grounds for it to be forced to close its account.

“I am not going to take my money back and cut and run,” he said.

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