New report on North Korea’s proliferation financing system

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

The non-profit C4ADS has released a new report about the networks that North Korea uses to get around the international sanctions regime, and to continue trading and financing its weapons programs. Among the most interesting findings, in my opinions, is that of how interconnected and few the Chinese firms that trade with North Korean entities are:

North Korean overseas networks have been extremely adaptive to the combined pressures of international sanctions, in large part due to their ability to nest and disguise their illicit business within the licit trade. Like the cover material of iron ore over the RPG’s aboard the Jie Shun, or the dual role played by Dandong Hongxiang, the problem is particularly acute in the North Korean context where the state controls major aspects of the international trading economy. As early as 2006, former Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Stuart Levey noted that, “the line between North Korea’s licit and illicit money is nearly invisible.” As North Korea has become ever more isolated internationally, it has had to confine nearly all of its trade to China. Data from 2016 shows that around 85% of total North Korean trade was conducted with China. According to Harvard-based North Korea specialist John Park, “what we are seeing now is the operation of sophisticated North Korean-run networks based in China.” In this relationship, North Korea has repeatedly taken advantage of the system of trade to conduct illicit activity nested within the licit system.

[…]

Although the regime has seen a boom in the sale of natural resources in recent years, the increased sale of fewer and fewer commodities to a single country has left its system of trade progressively more vulnerable. Analysis reveals that the scope of licit trade, in which North Korea nests its illicit networks, is surprisingly small. According to trade records, from 2013 to 2016, there were only 5,233 companies within China that either imported goods from or exported goods to North Korea. To put that number in perspective,as of 2016, 67,163 Chinese companies exported to South Korea. Additionally, these 5,233 businesses are not all unique actors: many of them have subsidiary relationships with companies within the dataset. For example, the network surrounding the DHID, the Liaoning Hongxiang Group, was made up of 18 companies in China alone, many of which appear within the dataset as unique entities.

The report mainly carries three findings:

In this report, we conduct a system-level examination of the North Korean overseas financing and procurement system. Our paper finds that this system is centralized, limited, and vulnerable, and that its disruption should greatly increase the pressure on the Kim regime to return to the negotiating table.

  • In Centralized, we examine key individuals and companies that connect networks from around the world. We discuss case studies of both regime “tactical controllers,” who conduct the operational tasks needed to move illicit goods, as well as “strategic chokepoints” through which these goods and their regime financing must flow.
  • In Limited, we explore trends within China-North Korea trade, the largest market exploited by North Korean overseas networks. Our data shows only 5,233 Chinese companies to have traded with North Korea from 2013 to 2016. Our analysis shows a small number of interconnected firms annually account for vast proportions of the trade, limiting the number of avenues in which North Korea can nest its illicit activity.
  • In Vulnerable, we analyze corporate structures and risk indicators that can be used to filter this data to identify potential dual-use transactions and networks of possible concern. Our priority lay in linking previously unidentified entities with known North Korean illicit actors to showcase the possibility of causing systemic disruption using targeted enforcement.

Full report:
Risky Business: A System-Level Analysis of the North Korean Proliferation Financing System
David Thompson
C4ADS
June 2017

Share

An affiliate of 38 North