On January 10, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il traveled in a luxury train to China’s Guangdong province to sample socialist-flavored capitalism. Just a few months earlier, the North Korean Workers Party introduced reform measures granting foreign investors tax cuts and allowing them to sell goods produced in North Korea without tariffs.
For an economy that ostensibly issued halting economic reforms in 1984, these new measures constitute a revolution, albeit one with Chinese characteristics. In accordance with its giant neighbor’s model, North Korean economic reform is predicated as an alternative to the instability of political liberalization. Unforeseen social and political shifts are to be cushioned by financial solvency to keep the regime intact. With China’s assistance and unofficial aid, sustainable growth may one day be achieved in North Korea. Yet a darker side to North Korea’s economic awakening remains.
Kim Jong-il’s visit comes on the heels of accounts of North Korean money-laundering in Macau and the US decision last June and again in October to freeze the assets of various North Korean companies and financial institutions. While many of these firms are beyond the reach of US sanctions, implied misconduct has already led to runs on the North Korean-affiliated financial institution Banco Delta Asia in Macau.
As allegations swirl of money-laundering through counterfeit cigarettes and currency, a less-known story has emerged on British American Tobacco’s previously undisclosed four-year-old joint venture in North Korea. It presents the dilemma of doing business in a country in desperate need of revenue but with a poor track record of allocating resources to its people. This cautionary tale begs the question as to where exactly Pyongyang’s joint-venture profits are going.
For North Korea, which lacks many of the basic laws for financial transparency and good governance, capital investments are more than economically precarious. Shared contact information and dubious management practices among North Korean companies are ubiquitous.
Daesong-BAT is one of a handful of Western joint ventures in North Korea. The far-reaching tentacles of its North Korean partner illustrate the complexity of verifying the background and connections of any North Korean entity. Like many of its compatriots, North Korea’s Sogyong General Trading Corp (Sogyong) boasts circuitous and often indirect ties to entities engaged in proliferation, international trade, shipping, and money-laundering. These indicators point to larger concerns as to whether joint ventures, particularly Western ones, can be manipulated by North Korea for illicit financing of the regime or even to sustain its alleged WMD (weapons of mass destruction) programs.
Joint ventures and front companies
In establishing Daesong-BAT, British American Tobacco teamed up with Sogyong General Trading Corp, a Pyongyang-based state trader best known for its carpet exports. Sogyong, however, also exports such products as handicrafts, furniture and agricultural produce, while importing machinery, electronics, fishing tackle, chemicals and fertilizer. It is not uncommon for North Korean state-run enterprises to deal in everything from machinery to fishing tackle. Yet eclectic product lists make trade in illicit drugs and weapons all the more difficult to track. Cigarettes are just one more product in the Sogyong export-import pantheon.
North Korean company product lists also rarely convey their full range of trade. Seemingly innocuous industries are often manipulated as front companies. Last year, for example, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) listed what appeared to be an innocuous North Korean food manufacturer, Sosong Food Factory, for its participation in nuclear, missile, chemical and biological-weapons proliferation. Cigarettes, like food, have been used at times to mask the real objects being transferred. In one case, Japan in 2002 seized a Chinese vessel and found that the declared store of cigarettes on board actually contained drugs thought to have come from North Korea.
While not as licentious as drug or human trafficking, even the black-market trade of cigarettes could have a tangible impact on North Korea’s financing, as seen in Eastern European illegal cigarette rings. These factors highlight the danger of taking a North Korean food or even carpet manufacturer at face value.
North Korea’s network
Among the elements of obfuscation, the company name Daesong-BAT merits attention. Rather than combining or modifying the titles of the two partner companies to form Sogyong-BAT, Daesong-BAT combines British American Tobacco’s acronym with a name that could either point to North Korea’s Daesong district or Daesong General Trading Corp (Daesong). If it turns out to be the latter, Japan and other governments have prominently featured Daesong for its ties to missile and nuclear proliferation.
Incidentally, Daesong maintains one of the most extensive and convoluted North Korean networks, with more than 10 subsidiaries. It also is suspected of falling under Bureau 39, which earns foreign currency for North Korea. A direct connection between Daesong-BAT and the sinewy Daesong franchise has yet to be established but, as illustrated below, nothing is clear cut in North Korean business relations.
Because of the lack of transparency and convoluted nature of North Korean companies, contact information often serves as the first stencil for tracing overlap between industries. In the case of Daesong, the US Central Intelligence Agency’s Open Source Center follows the use of the same fax number to establish potential business and branch linkages. If the same logic is applied to Sogyong, another pattern emerges. Sogyong shares common fax numbers with at least two companies, Korea Foodstuffs Trading Corp (Foodstuffs) and Korea Kwail Trading Corp (Kwail). These companies in turn share fax numbers with nearly 100 companies in North Korea.
Among North Korean firms sharing contact information with Sogyong-linked entities, Japan’s METI and official European export monitors have listed at least six as end-users associated with North Korean WMD programs. In October, the US government targeted one in particular, Korea Ryonha Machinery Joint Venture Corp (Ryonha), freezing its assets under US jurisdiction and placing it on the US Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list. Ryonha is a prime example of the complex web of North Korean subsidiaries. Last June, the US Treasury Department also targeted the assets of its parent company Korea Ryonbong General Corp, formerly known as Lyongaksan, which heads five other US-designated entities.
Ryonha is not an aberration among companies converging with Sogyong. Among other Foodstuffs and Kwail-connected entities, Korean company databases list Korea Pyongyang Trading Corp as a distributor of methane gas derived from animal excrement. Apparently, effluent is not its only fetid source of income. The Japanese government has listed the very same company, along with subsidiaries of two other firms tracing back to Sogyong, namely Korea Ryonhap Trading Corp and Korea Jangsu Trading Corp, for nuclear, missile, chemical and biological weapons proliferation.
Proliferation networks may not be the only mechanisms at Sogyong’s fingertips. Contact information also links the two Sogyong-connected associates with at least four North Korean financial institutions. Among these, Koryo Bank and Korea Joint Bank have alleged ties to the now-infamous Banco Delta Asia in Macau. Banco Delta Asia’s own purported involvement in counterfeit-currency distribution and counterfeit-cigarette smuggling does not bode well for Daesong-BAT, no matter how convoluted their connections. Banco Delta Asia may have three degrees of separation between it and Sogyong, but in North Korea’s fishbowl of finance this does not preclude cooperation.
Banco Delta Asia is also reported to maintain a close business relationship with Macau-based Zokwang Trading, which its own vice general managing director claims is a part of North Korea’s Daesong General Trading Corp. Daesong, as mentioned earlier, has a pervasive proliferation record. It also has reported links to Changgwang Sinyong Corp (Changgwang), which has been repeatedly sanctioned by the United States for its missile-proliferation activities and sales to Iran and Pakistan. Zokwang in turn deals in missiles and nuclear-power-plant components, all the while maintaining a partnership with the notorious Changgwang. Combined with Sogyong’s branch in the joint \-venture hub Shenyang, China, even indirect ties to Macau suggest that Sogyong has the ability to tap into proliferation, industrial and financial networks in China and beyond.
Proliferation, industry and finance mean little without the means to transport goods and technology. Sogyong-associated entities Foodstuffs and Kwail share fax numbers with North Korea’s national airline Air Koryo, which has also been cited by official European monitors for proliferation. A 2003 Far Eastern Economic Review article even named Air Koryo as the transportation mechanism for Daesong’s suspected military assistance to Myanmar. Sogyong’s own shipping vessels Sogyong 1 and 2, which were detained in Japan on safety violations in December 2004 and January 2005, complete the final leg of the contact-linked proliferation, financing and shipment triangle. This network belies a much more intricate set of alliances than the domestic-consumption-based joint venture touted by British American Tobacco and Sogyong General Trading Corp.
Standards of business conduct
British American Tobacco’s website advocates transparency in international business and laudably eschews bribery, corruption, illicit trade, and money-laundering. In October, BAT executives further contended in The Guardian that the company’s North Korean cigarette joint venture fuels only domestic consumption, not exports to China or elsewhere. In spite of these reassurances, BAT is no stranger to the dangers of black-market cigarette production and transshipment. A February 2000 article in The Guardian even accuses BAT of complicity, by knowingly allowing illicit smuggling of its cigarettes to occur.
In the case of Daesong-BAT, British American Tobacco officials have admitted to knowing little of the company’s North Korean joint-venture operations. Ominously, BAT has stated that an unnamed Singapore division controls its North Korean joint venture. Lack of oversight combined with a dubious North Korean offshore mechanism for managing an ostensibly domestic industry raises significant warning signs. The incestuous relationship between state-run North Korean entities that share fax numbers of companies and banks listed for WMD procurement and money-laundering through counterfeit tobacco should also elicit concern. These are not simply dilemmas for British American Tobacco, but pose challenges to any companies forming joint ventures in North Korea.
Economic integration, as in China’s case, may bring North Korea more into step with international norms and standards. Ironically, engagement that is likely to lead to greater future transparency may also be manipulated for North Korea’s short-term illicit gains.
In 2003, the British government pressured BAT to close down its cigarette factory operations in the military dictatorship of Myanmar because of concerns over that country’s lack of human rights. Given the legion of obstacles impeding transparency in North Korea, BAT and other Western firms could be contributing to the worsening of more than human rights. They could be aiding and abetting illicit North Korean financing that is alleged to fuel Kim Jong-il’s slush fund and WMD programs.