Archive for the ‘Finance’ Category

A Chinese ban on North Korean imports damages the North Korean economy

Tuesday, March 13th, 2018

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

The North Korean economy is expected to face serious difficulties due to China’s ban on imports from North Korea. Having analyzed China’s sanctions against North Korea, KOTRA’s Korea Trade Center in Shenyang recently suggested that while North Korea depends overwhelming on China for its export, its exports are expected to plummet due to China’s measures.

After Pyongyang made its fifth nuclear test on February 18, 2017, China joined the sanctions imposed by United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2321 and halted its import of North Korean coal until December that year.

Consequently, China’s import of North Korean coal was reduced by 60 percent compared to the same period in the previous year.

Furthermore, China imposed a complete ban on the import of coal, iron ore, lead and fishery products from North Korea, in accordance with the sanctions by UNSC 2371 adopted in response to North Korea’s IBCM launch on August 14, 2017.

Moreover, in response to North Korea’s sixth nuclear test on September 22 and the launch of an ICBM on January 5, 2018, China put a restriction on the export of refined oil, crude oil and refined petroleum products to North Korea.

The restriction on the export of refined petroleum products is expected to be a serious blow to the North Korean industry. Keeping China’s exports below 10 percent of total North Korean demand for the products, the new sanction will hit the North Korean economy across the board, ranging from industry, transportation, cargo transportation and power supply.

In addition, North Korean households, which have lower priority in power supply, would face increasing difficulties in getting electricity and heating. In the meantime, North Koreans may not suffer greatly from the shortage of oil because China has limited its export of crude oil to North Korea to its annual level of supply.

North Korea’s foreign exchange shortage is also expected to be aggravated following the shutdown of North Korean businesses in China and the repatriation of North Korean workers, both of which have been main sources of funds for the North Korean leader.

On September 28, 2017, the Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced that all existing North Korean businesses and joint ventures in China, including those managed solely by North Korean companies and individuals, should be closed by January 9, 2018.

In accordance with the notification of closure, the Shenyang Municipal Bureau of Industry and Commerce Administration issued a letter of notification to North Korean businesses and joint ventures in the city, leading to the shutdown of the Chilbosan Hotel and several North Korean restaurants.

In addition, North Koreans currently employed in China are allowed to remain while they have a valid visa, but have been asked to return to North Korea upon expiration of their visa.

Although the Chinese Ministry of Commerce completely prohibited the import of North Korean textile products on September 22, 2017, the import ban has created little export-ban effects to date, because cargo that has not completed the customs clearance procedure is excluded from the ban.


Developments in North Korea’s electronic payment systems

Monday, March 12th, 2018

I have recently published most of the information below in Radio Free Asia (in Korean), so here it is again in English.

As an economist with an interest in North Korea’s monetary policy, banking, and capital markets, I have kept an eye on developments in North Korea’s payment technologies.

In this area I have previously posted about Koryo Bank Card, Narae CardKumgil Card, Ryugyong Commercial Bank ATMs, Jonsong Card, Golden Triangle Bank Card, Mirae Bank toll-road payments, e-commerce platforms Okryu, Sangyon, and Kwangmyong, and loyalty card programs at Haemaji Restaurant, Kwangbok Supermarket, and Moran Shop. There are, of course, other examples I have not blogged about.

Recently, however, the North Korean media has highlighted continued developments in this field, and I wanted to capture some of that information for readers here.

According to the North Korean media (2018-1-21), the Pyongyang Information Technology Bureau (평양정보기술국) and a subordinate organization, the Card Research Institute (카드연구소), appear to be developing cards for North Korea’s electronic payment system. Perhaps rather ominously, KCTV mentions that the agency is working to  expand the use of cards with features like user identification. Below is a screenshot of some of the cards that they are producing. 

Below are the names of cards as best I can tell (L-R,T-B):
1. Koryo Bank
2. South Hamgyong Province Science Library Card
3. Pyongyang Metro
4. KoryoLink
5. ?
6. ?
7. Yaksu (mineral water) Payment Card
8. Jonsong Card
9. Soson? Gas Station
10. Jangmi Health Complex
11. Jonsong Card (Duplicate)
12. ?
13.  Taedongmun Cinema?
14. ?
15. Mirae Health Card
16. “Juyu” Card

We already know that some of these cards are in use (KoryoLink, Jonsung) and others are apparently still in development (Pyongyang Metro Card) [As far as I am aware, people still pay for the metro with tokens]. Some of these are prepay cards for a specific service (KoryoLink for mobile phones), some are prepay cards for broader commercial transactions (Koryo Bank, Jonsong Card), others are probably a mix of loyalty and prepay cards.

A couple of recent articles in DPRK Today shed additional light these developments. The new smart card management system is called Ullim (Ulrim, 울림), presumably named after the famous waterfall in North Korea. The Ullim Network acts as a clearing house for outstanding fuel cards, bank payments, member card services, etc. The system is 100% locally developed (they claim).

I am unsure how the Ullim Network is related to the Narae Network which is managed by the Foreign Trade Bank. Narae Cards are noticeably absent from any of the information put out by/on the Pyongyang Information Technology Bureau. Since all of these products seem connected to the Jonsong Card, under the control of the Central Bank, it may be that the Central Bank and the Foreign Trade Bank, which are still legally separate organizations last I heard, are developing their own separate e-payment networks. But foreigners buy KoryoLink cards (featured in this material) with Narae Cards, so I am not sure what exactly is going on. Maybe KoryoLink Cards for North Koreans (as opposed to foreigners) can be bought on the Jonsong card on the Ullim Network and foreign KoryoLink cards care bought with Narae cards issued by FTB? Maybe I am just overthinking all of this… Here are  some other Ullim member cards featured in DPRK Today (KKG Bank was circled by me):

The cards featured in the lower image are (clock-wise from the top):
1. Koryo Bank
2. Jonsong Card
3. Pyongyang Children’s Hospital
4. Ryugyong Health Complex
5. Pyongyang Information Technology Bureau
6. Sci-Tech Complex

DPRK Today has also published information on the Pyongyang Bike Share Card, “Ryomyong” (려명자전거카드). This card is also part of the Ullim Network.

Recently, North Korean media also highlighted an electronic payment card for the Kwanghung Shop located in Rakrang District. It is unclear if the Kwanghung Shop card is related to the Ullim Network since it has not appeared in any of the marketing materials yet.

According to the report, the Kwanghung Shop card can be used offline and for online purchases. The shop also claims to offer delivery services for their goods if ordered online  or by phone.

According to KCTV news (2018-2-23), the Energy Information Research Institute (전력정보연구소) under the Ministry of Electric Power Industry (전력공업성) is developing a payment card and mobile phone payment app:

The research discussed in the video is part of the National Power Management System (국가통합전력관리체계) named Pulyagyung (불야경/Bright Night Lights). The phone payment system displayed is a prototype remote electricity allocation system that allows retail electricity consumers to order electricity service from their mobile device instead of going to a physical office to have power allocated to a specific location.

Implications: There is a bright and a dark side to this technology. On the light side, we can group benefits to consumers: Payments are facilitated, savings options are increased, transactions costs are lowered meaning consumers benefit even as individual firms may earn float from the technology.

The dark side of the technology is of course how it can be used by the government for purposes of control/appropriation. In the old days, North Korea (and many other communist and developing countries) kept foreign currency out of the hands of their people through the use of Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs). People had to change their foreign exchange into “green” money (for capitalist countries) and “red” money (for communist countries) to spend in local hard currency shops. This allowed the spenders to use their hard currency value to purchase imported goods while the actual hard currency paper stayed out of the hands of the people in the shops. This system was scrapped in the early 2000s. Electronic payment technologies mark a return to the goals of the FEC system…People can have foreign exchange balances to spend on imported goods at hard currency shops, but the actual paper currency remains on deposit at a bank.

This is bad news for North Korea’s black market and unofficial economy as well. With electronic payments it is harder to hide income and transaction history from the government (for tax/appropriation purposes). It would be very easy for officials in an anti-corruption investigation to pull up a spreadsheet of ones legal income and transactions to see if there is a substantial mismatch with your assets and standard of living.

Anyway, we will see how this develops. There is still a great deal we do not know.


FinCEN designates Latvian Bank for North Korea links

Wednesday, February 14th, 2018

UPDATE 1 (2018-2-19): According to the AFP:

The European Central Bank said Monday it has frozen payments by the third-largest bank in tiny Baltic state Latvia, as its finances have deteriorated in the wake of money laundering allegations from Washington.

“Temporarily, and until further notice, a prohibition of all payments by ABLV bank on its financial liabilities has been imposed, and is now in effect,” the ECB said in a statement.

It is the first time the ECB has used its power to impose a moratorium since taking on eurozone-wide banking supervision responsibilities in 2014.

The US Department of the Treasury last week named ABLV “an institution of primary money laundering concern” and accused it of connections to North Korea’s weapons development programme.

ABLV’s financial position, which had previously been stable, has rapidly deteriorated since as it found its access to the financial system cut off, even threatening the bank’s survival.

In late September 2017, the bank’s balance sheet stood at around 3.6 billion euros ($4.5 billion), with 1.0 billion euros of loans and 2.7 billion in deposits.

Just two days before the ECB’s moratorium, Latvian supervisor FCMC issued a statement saying the bank’s capital and liquidity ratios — key indicators of a bank’s financial health — were in good shape.

The ECB decision on Monday comes after Latvian central bank governor Ilmars Rimsevics, who sits on the ECB governing council, was arrested Saturday by the country’s Corruption Prevention Bureau (KNAB).

A source familiar with the case told AFP there was no connection between the ABLV case and the governor’s arrest.

ORIGINAL POST (2018-2-14): According to the FinCEN press release:

FinCEN Finds the Bank Orchestrates Money Laundering Schemes, Obstructs Regulatory Enforcement, and Has Conducted Activity Linked to North Korea

The U.S. Department of the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) today issued a finding and notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), pursuant to Section 311 of the USA PATRIOT Act, seeking to prohibit the opening or maintaining of a correspondent account in the United States for, or on behalf of, ABLV Bank. FinCEN is proposing this action based on its finding set out in the NPRM that ABLV is a foreign bank of primary money laundering concern.

“FinCEN will continue to take action against foreign banks that disregard anti-money laundering safeguards and become conduits for widespread illicit activity,” said Steven T. Mnuchin, Secretary of the Treasury. “Deficient practices at banks foster a wide array of illicit conduct, including activity linked to North Korea’s weapons program and corruption connected to Russia and Ukraine. FinCEN is committed to protecting the U.S. financial system from these types of risks.”

As described in the finding, ABLV has institutionalized money laundering as a pillar of the bank’s business practices. ABLV’s management permits the bank and its employees to orchestrate money laundering schemes; solicits high-risk shell company activity that enables the bank and its customers to launder funds; maintains inadequate controls over high-risk shell company accounts; and seeks to obstruct enforcement of Latvian anti-money laundering and combating the financing of terrorism (AML/CFT) rules in order to protect these business practices.

ABLV’s failure to implement, and disregard for, effective AML/CFT and sanctions policies and procedures have made the bank attractive to a range of illicit actors engaged in organized crime, weapons proliferation, corruption, and sanctions evasion. Illicit financial activity at the bank includes transactions for parties connected to UN-designated entities, some of which are involved in North Korea’s procurement or export of ballistic missiles. In addition, ABLV has facilitated transactions for corrupt politically exposed persons and has funneled billions of dollars in public corruption and asset stripping proceeds through shell company accounts. ABLV failed to mitigate the risk stemming from these accounts, which involved large-scale illicit activity connected to Azerbaijan, Russia, and Ukraine.

Section 311 actions alert the U.S. financial sector to foreign institutions, such as ABLV, that are of primary concern and through the public rulemaking process, if necessary, cut them off from the U.S. financial sector.

Here is coverage in the Korea Herald:

Last year, an investigation by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and Treasury found that five other Latvian banks, which mainly serve nonresident clients, violated the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions against North Korea and rules on anti-money laundering and the financing of terrorism.

Latvia’s Financial and Capital Market Commission confirmed the banks’ illicit activity and assigned it financial penalties totaling 3.5 million euros ($4.3 million).

It is the third time the US government has imposed sanctions against a foreign bank for dealing with North Korea.

In 2005, Macau-based Banco Delta Asia had some $25 million in North Korean funds frozen under US sanctions, as 24 companies including Chinese banks stopped dealing with the North, putting Pyongyang under severe financial strain. The US also blacklisted China’s Bank of Dandong in June last year for laundering money for North Korea.

“We have made clear to countries and companies around the world that they can choose to trade with North Korea or the United States, but not both,” the US Treasury’s Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Sigal Mandelker said in an anti-money laundering and financial crimes conference in New York on Tuesday.

“We will target not only companies that actually know they are being exploited, but also those that should know. We are resolved that anyone who knowingly aids North Korea faces being cut off from the US financial system.”

Read the full story here:
Latvian bank faces US sanctions for dealing with NK
Kim So-hyun
Korea Herald


Sanctioned Foreign Trade Bank can’t pay North Korea’s UN dues…

Tuesday, February 13th, 2018

Reuters reports that North Korea cannot pay its UN dues owing to sanctions on its official hard currency repository, the Foreign Trade Bank (FTB). According to the article:

North Korea’s U.N. Ambassador Ja Song Nam met with U.N. management chief Jan Beagle on Friday to ask the world body to help secure a bank transaction channel so Pyongyang could pay the nearly $184,000 it says it owes for 2018.

U.N. member states are required to pay assessed contributions to the world body’s regular and peacekeeping budgets, as well as a budget for international tribunals.

U.S. and U.N. sanctions on the Foreign Trade Bank, North Korea’s primary foreign exchange bank, were preventing the country ”from honoring its obligation as a U.N. member state by hindering even normal activities such as payment of the U.N. contribution,” the North Korean mission said in a statement late on Friday.

The United States sanctioned the Foreign Trade Bank in 2013, while the U.N. Security Council blacklisted the bank last August.

The 15-member U.N. Security Council has unanimously boosted sanctions on North Korea since 2006 in a bid to choke funding for Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

According to the U.N. Charter, countries in arrears in an amount that equals or exceeds the contributions due for two preceding years can lose their vote in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly. The General Assembly can grant an exception if a country can show that conditions beyond its control contributed to the inability to pay.

The U.N. website said that as of Jan. 28 there 12 countries in arrears of more than two years. Apart from its 2018 dues, North Korea said it is up to date with its payments.

I know that many in the diplomatic and NGO communities have been physically bringing in cash to fund their operations in Pyongyang since the FTB was sanctioned.

There was a Russian Bank, Bank Sputnik, that had maintained a financial link to the FTB to service the diplomatic community. However, this banking link was severed in September 2017 and apparently remains closed.

UPDATE (2018-2-21): A news site I was previously unaware of has some interesting information on the relationship between the DPRK’s Foreign Trade Bank and the Russian bank, Sputnik. According to Inner City News:

In the face of North Korea sanctions, the UN in December 2017 used the sanctioned Foreign Trade Bank and Russia’s Sputnik Bank to transfer EUR 3,974,920.62 into the country, documents obtained by Inner City Press show. A letter from Sputnik Bank states that “unauthorized person (I.V. Tonkih) led negotiations with Korean party on interbank correspondent relationship.” Photos here.

NK News did a better job reporting on the relationship between Sputnik and the FTB.

Read the full story here:
North Korea says unable to pay U.N. dues, blames sanctions


North Korea opens its first toll expressway

Thursday, January 18th, 2018


Pictures above via @EricTalmadge (Jan 26, 2018)

Institute for Far Eastern Studies (IFES)

According to the Russian embassy in Pyongyang, starting January 20, 2018, North Korea will begin collecting tolls on the expressway between Pyongyang and Wonsan—a first time for the country to collect such tolls.

According to the Seoul-Pyongyang News, the Russian embassy explained in its Facebook on January 17 that it would be “the first time for the North Korean drivers to pay 8 euros (equivalent to 10,450 won in the South Korean currency) to take the Pyongyang-Wonsan Tourist Motorway.”

This recently resurfaced motorway first opened in September 1978, connecting Wonsan (Kangwon province) on the east and Pyongyang City on the west.

The recent photos provided by the embassy reveal an electronic payment station collecting the toll at the entrance of the expressway. They also reveal a map showing the Pyongchon Kwangmyong Technology Exchange Station, where drivers can purchase (or recharge) electronic payment cards and Mirae electronic cards issued by Mirae Bank.

In the meantime, more than one foreign diplomat in Pyongyang said that the North Korean authorities had sent a letter to the foreign missions and the representatives of international organizations in Pyongyang on January 15 to inform them of the new policy, Radio Free Asia reported.

Another Western diplomat in Pyongyang, who wanted to remain anonymous, said that the letter included the highway toll policy and detailed regulations, which explained that it would cost about 8 euros (0.02 euro per kilometer) or about USD10 for a total of 194 kilometers round trip between Pyongyang and Wonsan (or 3.88 euro for one way), if one is traveling by ordinary passenger car. However, large-sized buses will be charged a toll of about 27 euros for a roundtrip—Pyongyang to Wonsan and back—or 13.58 euros for a one-way trip.

The new tolls are expected to be applied to not only foreign residents in Pyongyang, such as diplomats and the agents of international organizations, but also the general public.

UPDATE: Here are most of the images posted by the Russian Embassy Facebook Page:

The toll fees are being managed by “Mirae Bank”. Mirae Bank Cards are available on Mirae Street.


This is the first toll booth outside of Pyongyang:



DPRK resolves debt with Poland

Wednesday, October 25th, 2017

According to Yonhap:

North Korea cleared off its debt to Poland in 2012 after the European country signed a deal with the North to write off 61 percent of the debt the previous year, Voice of America reported Thursday.

The Polish Treasury Department told VOA’s Korean Service that Poland held talks with North Korea on a debt write-off in 2011 and the North implemented what it was required to do under the agreement the same year.

According to the contract obtained by VOA, the agreement, signed in Pyongyang on June 1, 2011, stipulates that the North’s debt amounted to roughly US$4.31 million as of the reported year, including the production and delivery costs of Mi-2 military helicopters for which the Polish communist regime struck a deal with the North in 1986.

The report also said Poland’s debt relief was linked to the North’s provision of US$1.5 million in cash to purchase a ship to a North Korea-Poland joint venture shipping firm established in 1967.

Under the debt write-off deal, the North was also required to foot the bill of $200,000 to repair the Polish Embassy in Pyongyang. The repair project was based on an agreement between representatives from the two countries’ foreign ministries and the North was obligated to transfer the money to the embassy’s account.

In case the obligations are fulfilled, the agreement says, Poland will write off 61 percent of the North’s debt that corresponds to around $2.61 million.

North Korea currently owes debts to Sweden, Switzerland and Finland. The countries earlier said they had no intention of writing off the North’s debts.

Read the full story here:
N. Korea settles bill with Poland in 2012 after 61 pct of its debt written off: report


China closes more RMB bank accounts linked to North Korea

Monday, September 11th, 2017

UPDATE 2 (2017-9-12): According to the Global Times/Reuters (PR China):

Large State banks halt services for North Korean clients, tellers say

The big four Chinese State-owned banks have stopped providing financial services to new North Korean clients, according to branch staff, amid US concerns that the Chinese government has not been tough enough over North Korea’s repeated nuclear tests.

Tensions between the US and North Korea have increased after the sixth nuclear test conducted by Pyongyang on September 3 prompted the United Nations Security Council to impose further sanctions on Tuesday.

Chinese banks have come under scrutiny for their role as a conduit for funds flowing to and from North Korea.

China Construction Bank (CCB) has “completely prohibited business with North Korea,” said a bank teller at a branch in Northeast China’s Liaoning Province. The ban started on August 28, the teller said.

A person answering the customer hotline at the world’s largest lender, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), said the bank had stopped opening accounts for North Koreans and Iranians since July 16. The person did not explain why or answer further questions.

The measures taken by the largest Chinese banks began as early as the end of last year, when the city branch of Bank of China (BOC) in Dandong, Liaoning Province, which borders North Korea, stopped allowing North Koreans to open individual or business accounts, said a BOC bank teller who declined to be identified.

Existing North Korean account holders could not deposit or remove money from their accounts, the BOC teller said.

At Agricultural Bank of China (ABC), a teller at a branch in Dandong said North Koreans could not open accounts. The teller did not provide further details.

Official representatives for BOC, ICBC, CCB and ABC could not be reached for comment.

Banks in Dandong have been under the microscope as tensions have risen, given the city’s proximity to North Korea.

In June, the US accused the Bank of Dandong, a small lender, of laundering money for North Korea.

Attempts to slowly choke off the flow of funds to and from North Korea come after the US imposed sanctions on a Chinese industrial machinery wholesaler that it said was acting on behalf of a Pyongyang bank already covered by UN sanctions for supporting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

UPDATE 1 (2017-9-11): According to the Financial Times:

China’s biggest banks have banned North Koreans from opening new accounts in an unprecedented move to clamp down on financial flows with the country’s unruly neighbour.

Multiple bank branches, including those of the country’s top four lenders, told the Financial Times they had imposed a freeze on new accounts for North Korean people and companies. Some are going even further, saying they are “cleaning out” existing accounts held by North Koreans by forbidding new deposits.

Banks implementing a ban on new accounts include the country’s big five — Bank of China, China Construction Bank, Agricultural Bank of China, and Industrial and Commercial Bank of China and Bank of Communications.

Branches of each of these banks in China’s north-eastern border towns, where trade with North Korea is concentrated, said they had been instructed to stop opening new bank accounts for North Korean individuals or companies.

Branches of three of the banks said they were in the process of cleaning out existing accounts, while the remainder did not comment on procedures for existing accounts.

Although some bank branches said they had received notice of the freeze on North Korean accounts last month, others said they had been told as early as January.

“Branches didn’t implement the rule all at the same time but it started recently,” said one branch of ABC in Dandong, the border city through which roughly 70 per cent of China’s trade with North Korea flows.

“Current bank accounts held by North Koreans should be cleared out,” said a representative of a branch of ICBC in Yanji, the trading hub closest to the nuclear blast site at Punggye-ri. “We implemented the restrictions long before last month’s sanctions.”

However, traders pointed out that there were ways to get around the account ban to continue doing legal business with North Korea.

“We always use Chinese citizens living in North Korea as intermediaries when doing business,” said one groceries trader in Dandong who wished to remain anonymous because of the political sensitivity around North Korean trade.

“There’d be no reason to freeze Chinese nationals’ accounts, unless they’re sanctioning individuals,” he added.

Two Chinese businesspeople who run companies in North Korea — one of whom is based in the Chinese border town of Hunchun and one in Pyongyang — said all their transactions, such as payments to North Korean staff, were made in cash in Chinese renminbi, avoiding the need to have dealings between North Korean and Chinese banks.

Read the fulls story here:
China’s biggest banks ban new North Korean accounts
Financial Times
Yuan Yang and Xinning Liu

Here is additional coverage in the BBC.

ORIGINAL POST (2017-9-9): Daily NK reports that Beijing orders banks to close accounts for North Koreans:

Chinese banks have reportedly banned North Koreans living in China from opening up new accounts, and have ordered existing accounts to be closed.
“The Chinese authorities have made no distinction between North Korean consular officials, laborers, or traders; all are banned from opening accounts,” a local source reported to Daily NK. “Previously, the banks were happy to open accounts for North Koreans living in China for personal reasons (mostly visiting relatives), provided they present their personal identity documents. This practice has ended as well.”

According to the source, the new order applies to the four major state banks, as well as the Construction Bank of China, and regional private banks such as Pudong Bank.

The new measures do not come without precedent. After North Korea’s third nuclear test, China implemented a provision of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2094 that involved suspension of a deal with North Korea’s Joson Trade Bank. However, the UN resolution did not address individual accounts.

Following this, the North Korean authorities began circumventing international financial sanctions by opening accounts in individuals’ names and remitting investment capital and commercial payments to and from Chinese companies.

Because the bank accounts of North Koreans residing in China are being closed, North Korean laborers are having difficulties remitting money back home.

“Under the old system, the monthly wages of North Koreans working in Chinese factories were transmitted through the bank account of the North Korean factory manager. This is no longer possible, so they are being paid in cash,” the source explained.

Also relevant to the measure is that North Korean-Chinese collaborative ventures have been banned from using bank accounts, so seed money is now required in cash.

“Normally, when North Korean merchants want to start a new business in China, they make a business plan and submit it to Pyongyang. Upon approval, they seek out cooperation and investment from Chinese investors. But now, even if the investment request is approved, it isn’t possible to open a bank account so the investor needs to use a third party to provide cash directly,” the source said.

A March 2017 Radio Free Asia (RFA) investigation reported a similar trend, noting, “Private Chinese banks are beginning to close bank accounts held by North Korean nationals. North Korean laborers earning foreign currency in China have been issued an emergency alert.”

The Chinese Ministry of Commerce announced on August 25th that it is banning new joint ventures with North Koreans in China and additional investments.

“The Chinese government is publicly announcing that they are banning business projects with North Koreans and closing North Korean bank accounts, but many loopholes remain in place. Money can be laundered on the North Korean side and passed through Southeast Asian nations,” a separate source in China with knowledge of the matter said.

Read the full story here:
Beijing orders banks to close accounts for North Koreans
Daily NK


US government seizes millions from big banks though to have dealt with North Korea

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

Reuters reports:

U.S. authorities have tried to seize millions of dollars associated with several companies that deal with North Korea, including the country’s military, from eight large international banks, according to court filings made public on Thursday.

The effort was revealed two days after North Korea tested a long-range missile capable of reaching Alaska, ratcheting up tensions with the United States and adding to worries about North Korea leader Kim Jong-un’s nuclear weapons plans.

Thursday’s filings show that Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the federal court in Washington, D.C. on May 22 granted U.S. prosecutors’ applications for “damming” seizure warrants against Bank of America Corp (BAC.N), Bank of New York Mellon Corp (BK.N), Citigroup Inc (C.N), Deutsche Bank AG (DBKGn.DE), HSBC Holdings Plc (HSBA.L), JPMorgan Chase & Co (JPM.N), Standard Chartered Plc (STAN.L) and Wells Fargo & Co (WFC.N).

Prosecutors believe the banks have processed more than $700 million of “prohibited” transactions on behalf of entities tied to North Korea since 2009, including the period after Donald Trump was elected U.S. president, the filings show.

Some of the transactions were processed for Dandong Zhicheng Metallic Material Co and four affiliated “front” companies that prosecutors said tried to evade sanctions through transactions that would benefit North Korean entities, “including the North Korea military and North Korea weapons programs,” according to the filings.

The filings did not say any of the banks knowingly violated sanctions against North Korea.

In her decision, Howell authorized warrants requiring the eight banks to accept incoming transactions but not allow outgoing transactions involving the five companies for 14 days, and thereafter to seize what they collected.

Full article:
U.S. seeks funds tied to North Korea from eight big banks
Jonathan Stempel


North Korea’s ICBM-test, Byungjin and the economic logic

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

By Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein

At 3:30PM GMT+9 on Tuesday July 4th, North Korean television announced that the country had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile earlier in the day. Wall Street Journal:

The missile, identified as the Hwasong-14, was launched at a steep trajectory and flew 933 kilometers (580 miles), reaching an altitude of 2,802 kilometers, according to North Korean state television. The numbers are in line with analyses from U.S., South Korean and Japanese military authorities.

US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, later confirmed that the launched missile was an intercontinental ballistic one.

Here in Seoul, things seemed to continue on as usual, which tends to be the case in this city more than used to its fair share of similar news. The biggest strategic consequence, of course, is that for the US. A successful intercontinental ballistic missile of this sortcould potentially strike anywhere in Alaska.

With the latest launch, North Korea takes one step further along the nuclear side of the Byungjin lineof parallel development of nuclear weapons and the national economy, and arguably, one step back on the economic side of the dual-track policy. In the formulation of the Byungjin line, of course, both are interrelated. Missile launches are often described as evidence of progress in industry and science, ultimately benefitting economic progress. This launch was no exception. From KCNA:s statement yesterday, July 4th 2017 (my emphasis):

The success in the test-fire of inter-continental ballistic rocket Hwasong-14, final gate to rounding off the state nuclear force, at just one go is a powerful manifestation of the invincible state might and the tremendous capability of the self-reliant national defence industry of Juche Korea that has advanced at a remarkably rapid pace under the great Workers’ Party of Korea’s new line on the simultaneous development of the two fronts, and a great auspicious event to be specially recorded in the history of the DPRK which has long craved for powerful defence capabilities.

This launch happened in a context where North Korea is already under sanctions designed to strike at its coal exports, one of its most important sources of income, and where the US has just signaled its resolve to go after North Korea’s financial channels through secondary sanctions of Chinese entities. At the same time, Kim Jong-un’s tenure has very much come to be associated with some economic progress (albeit from a low level, and primarily benefitting the relatively privileged classes), symbolized by projects such as the recently opened Ryomyong street.

It is not yet clear what the consequences will be. The US will likely try to add more sanctions targeted against specific entities and persons that help North Korea evade sanctions, and acquire equipment for its nuclear and missile programs.

The US will probably also call for international sanctions, but as Chad O’Carroll points out, the US may have a hard time getting such measures through in a quick manner given its currently tense relationships with both Moscow and Beijing. The US may also further push Beijing to implement the already existing sanctions against North Korea, but nothing appears to have changed with the claimed ICBM-test that would fundamentally alter China’s strategic calculations in the region. In other words, it continues to regard North Korea as a buffer between itself and US forces in the region, and as a geopolitical asset.

Whatever happens, it is safe to assume that it will not be good news for North Korea’s international ties in diplomacy, trade, finance, you name it. It would be easy to assume that economic progress and nuclear weapons development are mutually exclusive, since the second leads to further international isolation and economic sanctions, and therefore hampers the first.

In reality, that may be true. The North Korean Byungjin narrative, that weapons developmenthelpseconomic progress, is difficult to swallow, especially when one considers the opportunity cost that the weapons programs carry, both in terms of domestic resource dedication and the cost in international isolation.

But there is another way to look at it. Whatever the actual consequences will turn out to be, North Korea is making a strategic calculation that the gains from the test, and from overall nuclear weapons and missiles development, will be greater than the potential costs and downsides. Consider the following two factors:

First, North Korea has made economic progress in the past few years, and particularly since Kim Jong-un came to power, even under years of severe sanctions. North Korea has been under various forms of UN Security Council sanctions since its first nuclear test in 2006. During these years, its economic development has been impacted far more by domestic policy decisions than by international developments.

Again, we are absolutely not talking about any growth miracle, and some probably exaggerate the degree of the wealth increase in North Korea over the past few years. But without a doubt, North Korea is far better off now than it was eleven years ago, and worlds apart from the famine of the 1990s. Food insecurity prevails in North Korea but the country has not seen widespread starvation since the late 1990s, and largely thanks to better economic frameworks (or rather less predatory), and increased space for private production and trade within the economic system, things are looking much better today than in many years.

Just look at this video recently published by the Daily NK, from Chongjin, one of North Korea’s largest cities in its northeast. Is this long-term, sustainable growth that will eventually lead North Koreans to enjoy the same prosperity as their counterparts in South Korea or even China? Probably not. But at least it’s something.

Second, and relatedly, North Korea likely has a significant amount of channels for trade and various transactions that are not commonly known, but that play highly significant roles for the economy. For example, consider the information that Ri Jong Ho, a former official in North Korea’s Office 39, supplied in a recent interview with Kyodo News. Ri claims that North Korea procures up to 300,000 tons of fuel and various oil products from Russia each year, through dealers based in Singapore. As a point of comparison, a commonly cited figure for crude oil supplies from China is 520,ooo tons per year. Proportionately, then, 300,000 tons is not close to a majority, but still a significant amount for North Korea. While intelligence services or others with access to classified information may have known this already, Ri’s claims, if true (they have not and in all likelihood cannot be fully corroborated),

The point here is that North Korea has gotten so used to going through back channels and unconventional means to acquire highly significant amounts of supplies required for its society to function. It is an economic system where unconventional (and often illicit) channels of trade are not exceptions, but core parts of the economic management toolbox. This is not to argue that sanctions do not or cannot work. Rather, it shows the extent to which unconventional methods are institutionalized within economic management in North Korea.

The North Korean government is no monolith, and there are almost certainly some parts of the governing apparatus that are more and less pleased with the ICBM-test. But in the higher echelons of the leadership, the strategic calculation is probably that even with the added sanctions that are very likely to come, North Korea will be able to continue along roughly the same economic strategies as it has thus far. Perhaps we can call it North Korea’s own “strategic patience”: continuing with patchwork strategies for international economic relations, with little concern for the impact of lack of sustainable growth on people’s livelihoods, while banking on eventual recognition as a nuclear power. Only time will tell whether targeted secondary sanctions will change that calculation.


UK freezes KNIC assets

Monday, April 24th, 2017

According to The Guardian:

The UK has frozen the assets of a North Korean company based in south-east London after claims it funnelled cash to Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons programme.

The Korea National Insurance Corporation (KNIC) is registered at a property in Blackheath. The EU has already imposed sanctions against the company, which it describes as “generating substantial foreign exchange revenue which is used to support the regime in North Korea”. The move by Brussels followed an UN resolution.

The EU warned: “Those resources could contribute to the DPRK’s nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related or other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes.”

The company is registered to a detached property on Kidbrooke Park Road among suburban houses in an affluent part of London. Its entry on Companies House now describes KNIC as “closed” since 6 October 2016. Accounts show that in 2014 it had total assets of 130bn North Korean won, the equivalent of £113m.

According to EU sanctions imposed in July 2015, the KNIC’s headquarters in Pyonyang is linked to Office 39 of the Korean Workers’ party. In 2010 the US Treasury described Office 39 as “a secretive branch of the government of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that provides critical support to North Korean leadership in part through engaging in illicit economic activities and managing slush funds and generating revenues for the leadership”.

A spokesman for HM Treasury said: “We cannot comment on individual cases. However, the UK has fully complied and implemented the UN sanctions regime in relation to North Korea and North Korean companies.”

Through the EU regulations, the UK imposes restrictions on a range of goods from entering or leaving North Korea and imposes a travel ban and an asset freeze against people designated as engaging in or providing support for its programmes for weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

Under the same sanctions, the funds and economic resources have been frozen of four Hamburg-based North Koreans who ran the KNIC branch in Germany and two other regime officials who have since moved back to Pyongyang.

The Sunday Times, which first reported the freeze on the assets of the UK branch, reported that a North Korean man at the Blackheath property told it that the insurer’s main UK director, Ko Su-gil, had left Britain in September.

Read the full story here:
UK freezes assets of North Korean company based in south London
The Guardian


An affiliate of 38 North