Treasury Reportedly Set to Act to Free North Korean Money

NY Times
Steven R. Weisman
3/14/2007

The Treasury Department is expected to move formally this week to bar American banks from engaging in transactions with a bank in Macao linked to North Korea, clearing the way for North Korea to regain possession of money at the bank frozen since 2005, a Bush administration official said Tuesday.

American officials see such a step by the Treasury, which has been expected for weeks, as a crucial part of the recent deal to disarm North Korea’s nuclear program. The deal, announced last month, requires North Korea to disarm its nuclear facilities in return for economic and energy benefits.

The Chinese government effectively froze about $25 million connected to North Korea a year and a half ago, when the Treasury Department listed Banco Delta Asia, a small family-owned bank in Macao, as a “primary money laundering concern.” As much as half of the money is expected to be returned to North Korea.

American officials charged in 2005 that the bank was helping North Korea conduct counterfeiting, narcotics trafficking and transactions related to its nuclear weapons program, a charge that North Korea and the bank denied.

The initial Treasury announcement put American banks on notice that after further investigation, the department would decide whether to bar United States banks formally from facilitating transactions with the bank.

However, the practical effect was to make all United States banks voluntarily cease transactions with Banco Delta Asia.

Without the ability to acquire dollars, Banco Delta Asia collapsed. Macao froze all its funds related to North Korea, and most of its other customers withdrew their money in a run on the bank. The bank was then taken over by the authorities in Macao, a semiautonomous province of China.

Subsequently, American and Chinese authorities pored over more than 300,000 documents describing the transactions with North Korea. These included accounts of 20 North Korean banks, 11 North Korean trading companies, 9 North Korean citizens and 8 Macao-based companies that did business with North Korea, according to bank records filed with the Treasury Department.

The Treasury announcement expected this week would formalize what is already in place. It would probably mean that the bank could do only a modest amount of business, without the benefit of dollar transactions.

But it would mean that the Chinese government would be in a position to return some of the funds to North Korea that are not linked to counterfeiting, drugs, nuclear arms or other illicit activities.

For example, some of the funds belong to a North Korean unit of British American Tobacco, American officials say, and those funds are expected to be returned to the company, which is owned by British interests.

When the North Korea nuclear deal was announced last month, no mention was made of returning funds to North Korea from the bank, but American officials now say that the return of those funds was a major incentive for North Korea to reach an accord.

The disarmament agreement was negotiated with the United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia as part of what were called six-party talks.

Christopher R. Hill, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs and the central envoy in the talks, said this month that North Korea was “concerned about the fact that we were able to go after an important node of their financing” but that the United States would continue to monitor its illicit activities.

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