Gold fever is rampaging through the ruling elite of North Korea in the quest for relief from seemingly incurable economic malaise exacerbated by more than a year as a total outcast from the international financial community.
Word from Pyongyang is that trading companies and even individuals are offering payments in gold for imports from across the border with China and also in barter deals for products imported from elsewhere. Gold also has become a form of currency in the internal reward system of payoffs and bribes manipulated by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il to guarantee the loyalty of high-ranking officials.
The rush to sell gold – and, to a lesser extent, silver – has sharply escalated in the 16 months since the US Treasury Department blacklisted Banco Delta Asia (BDA) in Macau, banning all firms doing business with US firms from dealings with that bank. The Treasury Department charged that the BDA had been the principal conduit through which North Korea was shipping counterfeit US$100 “supernotes” printed on a highly sophisticated Swiss-made press in Pyongyang.
It’s well known that the US ban forced the BDA to impose a freeze on North Korean accounts totaling $24 million, but less well known that the bank also stopped purchasing gold produced by North Korea’s historic gold mines, in operation, sporadically, since the late 19th century.
Output of the mines, in mountains about 160 kilometers north of Pyongyang, fell sharply in the late 1990s as a result of flood and famine but, with foreign expertise, has begun to pick up in the past few years.
The impact of the ban, moreover, goes far beyond a single bank in Macau. Although North Korea last spring sold $38 million in gold and silver in Thailand, Pyongyang has been frustrated in reviving its presence on the London bullion market, the world’s largest marketplace for precious metals, amid increased US pressure on the large international banks that are the major buyers of gold.
It was in the aftermath of the ban on the BDA that North Korea’s Chosun Central Bank coughed up the information required by the London Bullion Markets Association (LBMA) for listing as a “good deliverer” of gold. North Korea from 1983 to 1993 had been in the LBMA’s good graces, averaging a ton a month in sales to London buyers that included some of the world’s leading banks, but had slipped off the list after failing to keep up deliveries.
The fact that the Chosun Central Bank again is listed with the LBMA, however, is no guarantee North Korea will be able to sell its gold. The US Treasury ban on dealings with the BDA – as well as sanctions unanimously imposed by the United Nations Security Council after North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test in October – has spooked buyers in London.
While the LBMA disavows “political criteria” in deciding on eligibility for its “good delivery list”, an LBMA memorandum leaves no doubt how buyers are likely to respond to overtures from a country or company on an international blacklist. None of them, according to Stewart Murray, the LBMA’s chief executive, is willing to take delivery from a company or country that is subject to sanctions.
Or, as the LBMA memorandum puts it, “If, for instance, a bullion custodian considered that it was bound by national or international sanctions that were in force against a particular country, it would have to refuse to accept bars from a refiner in that country.”
The memorandum, moreover, does not mince words when it comes to stating the importance of a “good deliverer” rating. “Given the status of London as the world’s leading center for bullion trading,” it says, “the LBMA List has become the de facto world list of quality refiners and Good Delivery accreditation is a highly sought-after accolade.”
In recent years, “the List” – capitalized in the memo – “has grown primarily due to the listing of refiners in China and Russia” and now totals 77 refiners in 31 countries.
Investors see North Korea as competing on a world stage once sanctions are lifted. “What we’re doing is normal business,” said Roger Barrett, whose firm, Korea Business Consultants, operates in North Korea from headquarters in Beijing. By reviving old minesand developing new ones, he argued, “We’re creating jobs for people, in line with the UN basic charter, in line with economic growth.”
Barrett also believes North Korea may somehow get around the sanctions by finding new markets. “Why would you go to the trouble of going to London?” he asked. “They’re totally entitled to sell their gold.” The fact is, however, that London remains the place to sell gold in significant quantities on a regular basis.
Under the circumstances, Colin McAskill, chairman of Hong Kong’s Koryo Asia Ltd and the guiding light of the Chosun Development and Investment Fund, dedicated to investing in North Korea, accused top US Treasury officials of waging a campaign to make sure the ban on banks dealing with the BDA extends to gold and silver.
McAskill accused US officials, led by Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Stuart Levey, under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, of “using coercion, innuendo and sheer force to intimidate banks from dealing with North Korea”.
Among the victims of the US campaign is one of Koryo Asia’s projects, the Daedong Credit Bank, the only foreign bank based in North Korea, set up primarily to deal with accounts of foreign firms and embassies in Pyongyang. The freeze of North Korean accounts in the BDA, according to McAskill, includes about $7 million funds of Daedong Bank customers.
McAskill avidly supports North Korean demands for the US to lift the ban on the BDA – a move that would not only open up the frozen North Korean accounts but would provide the opening needed for Pyongyang to trade in a wide range of products around the world.
The financial issue is assumed to have ranked at the top of an agenda discussed in meetings in Berlin between the chief US envoy, Christopher Hill, and his North Korean counterpart, Kim Kye-gwan. Hill, reporting on the Berlin talks in stop-offs in Seoul, in Tokyo and Beijing, seemed hopeful about “progress” in the next round of six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear weapons, expected to open in Beijing next month, after the failure of negotiators to get anywhere in the last round before Christmas.
South Korean media said North Korea had agreed to shut down its five-megawatt reactor at its nuclear complex Yongbyon in return for the US promise of massive aid, the crux of the 1994 Geneva Framework Agreement that blew up in 2002 amid US charges of a separate, secret North Korean program for developing warheads from enriched uranium.
There was no assurance, however, that the US is ready to relent on the BDA or that the UN Security Council will consider lifting its own sanction – enough to dissuade banks in London from buying North Korean gold regardless of the US ban on the BDA.
McAskill believes the rationale for the crackdown on the BDA is flawed. He questions the validity of the counterfeit charge and, in any case, says most of the frozen funds are not those of the North Korean government, even though they’re tired up in North Korean accounts. “We want to get a breakthrough on the six-party talks by getting the sanctions eased or lifted entirely,” he said. “We’re at a very delicate stage.”
Whatever happens, McAskill sees North Korea as ripe for investment, with precious metals high on the list of potential exports. “North Korea wants to move back into legitimate business,” he said. “They have a wealth of minerals – gold, silver, zinc, magnesite, copper, uranium, platinum – that needs investment to extract.”