Archive for the ‘Tanchon Commercial Bank’ Category

North Korea’s golden path to security

Thursday, January 18th, 2007

Asia Times
Bertil Lintner

While the West and Japan have targeted North Korea’s overseas bank accounts to curtail its weapons program, Pyongyang has recently turned to more ingenious ways of maintaining its international businesses through substantial exports of gold, silver and other valuable metals.

Pyongyang has apparently found a willing conduit to global buyers through its many business connections in Thailand, which has recently emerged as the isolated state’s third-largest trading partner after China and South Korea. According to official Thai Customs Department statistics, North Korea shipped 500 kilograms of gold worth 398 million baht (US$11 million) to Thailand last April.

The following month, another 800kg of gold worth 635 million baht landed in Thailand courtesy of North Korea. Also, in June, 10 tons of silver worth 148 million baht was sent from North Korea to Thailand, followed by 12 tons worth 166 million baht last October.

In sum, North Korea exported 1.35 billion baht – or nearly $40 million – worth of precious metals to Thailand last year.

That is a substantial figure for North Korea, a country with an estimated gross domestic product of about $22 billion and whose total exports amounted to just over $1 billion, according to official statistics. Thailand is bound by the international sanctions imposed last October against North Korea by the United Nations in response to Pyongyang’s exploding an atomic bomb.

According to official Thai statistics, the gold and first consignment of silver were shipped to Thailand before the UN sanctions were imposed. But there is nothing illegal in North Korea exporting precious metals, unless, of course, the income from the sale can be tied directly to the country’s controversial weapons programs, which anyway would be extremely hard to prove.

Untapped riches
North Korea’s gold and silver mines remain largely untapped. According to Tse Pui-kwan, a Chinese-American chemist who joined the US Bureau of Mines in 1990, North Korea has significant deposits of copper, gold, graphite, iron, lead, magnesite, tungsten and zinc. When the Cold War ended and North Korea lost large amounts of foreign aid from both the Soviet Union and China, its mining industry fell into disrepair and extraction activities sharply declined.

But with new foreign cooperation, production has resumed, which the recent exports to Thailand clearly demonstrate. North Korea’s main gold mine is in Unsan county in North Pyongan province, about 150 kilometers north of Pyongyang. It was originally opened by a US firm in 1896, when Korea was still an independent and unified kingdom, and was later taken over by a Japanese company when the peninsula became a colony ruled by Tokyo in 1910.

Nearly a century later, consultants from Clough Engineering of Australia in 2001 inspected the same mine under the sponsorship of the United Nations Office for Project Services. They estimated that Unsan held 1,000 tons of gold reserves, which if true would make it one of the world’s major gold mines. Silver is also mined in the same area, while iron ore and magnesite are found in North and South Hamgyong provinces in the northeast.

North Korea’s extraction techniques are sometimes controversial. According to witnesses interviewed by the US Committee for Human Rights in North Korea for its 2003 report “The Hidden Gulag: Exposing North Korea’s Prison Camps”, there is a gold-mining labor camp near Danchun in South Hamgyong province, where thousands of prisoners are being held and forced to work under abysmal conditions.

In that same report, several witnesses claimed that “some of the mine shafts dated back to the early days of the Japanese occupation of Korea in the early 1900s. Accessing the veins of minable gold required descending and, later, ascending a wooden staircase 500 meters in length, using gas lanterns for light. Deaths from mining accidents were a daily occurrence, including multiple deaths from the partial collapse of mine shafts.”

The first attempt to modernize North Korea’s gold-mining industry was made by an Italian financier and former Foreign Ministry official, Carlo Baeli, who traveled to the country in the early 1990s and claims to be the first Westerner to do business with Pyongyang since the Korean War. He later wrote a book called Kim Jong-il and the People’s Democratic Republic of Korea, which was published in Pyongyang in 1990, obviously with official permission as it was printed by the state-owned Foreign Languages Publishing House.

Apart from painting a flattering portrait of the North Korean leader, the book describes Baeli’s first trip to Pyongyang in 1990, of which he wrote, “We were interested in investing in the mining industry, mainly in the extraction of gold and granite.” Baeli later signed a contract for a loan of $118 million to purchase mining equipment, and the goal was to resurrect no fewer than six gold mines across North Korea. The money was to be provided by international banks such as Midland Bank and the Naples International Bank. He also arranged for the mining equipment to be shipped from Italy.

But heavy flooding in the mid-1990s damaged both the equipment and the mines and, according to a 2006 report in Forbes magazine, Baeli today works as an adviser to the Pyongyang government at a tire-recycling plant. The car and truck tires are imported from Japan, get ground into granulate in North Korea, and are sold to China for road resurfacing, car mats and shoe soles. A lucrative business, perhaps, but not quite the golden dream Baeli had when he first arrived in Pyongyang nearly 17 years ago.

Another unusual partner in North Korea’s gold trade may have been the late Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos. In August 2001, the right-wing South Korean newspaper Munhwa Ilbo published a story claiming that Marcos in September 1970 had deposited 940 tons of gold bars at a Swiss bank in the name of the late North Korean dictator, Kim Il-sung. The report came from a former Marcos aide, and Munhwa Ilbo carried a copy of the bank-account certificate on its front page. The alleged gold bars were part of what a Japanese army general had looted from Asia during World War II, Munhwa Ilbo claimed.

That report was never independently confirmed, but it nevertheless reflects the mystique and speculation that still surround North Korea’s gold industry – and how little the outside world actually knows about it.

Financial pressures
When the US took action against Banco Delta Asia in Macau in September 2005, labeling it a “primary money-laundering concern” for North Korean funds, very little evidence to substantiate the charges was ever produced. North Korea lost $24 million when the accounts it held with the bank in the name of a front company, Zokwang Trading, were frozen. Zokwang, which had been operating in Macau for decades, also closed its office and relocated to Zhuhai province across the border in China proper.

The action against Banco Delta Asia, a privately owned bank that the Macau government later had to prop up to prevent it from collapsing, was the second move against North Korea’s assets abroad. In a much less publicized action, North Korea’s only bank located in a foreign country – the Golden Star Bank in Vienna – was forced to suspend its operations in June 2004. The Golden Star was 100% owned by the Korea Daesong Bank, a state enterprise headquartered in Pyongyang, and was allowed to set up a branch in the Austrian capital in 1982.

For more than two decades, Austrian police kept a close eye on the bank, but there was no law that forbade the North Koreans from operating a bank in the country. Nevertheless, Austria’s police intelligence department stated in a 1997 report: “This bank [Golden Star] has been mentioned repeatedly in connection with everything from money-laundering and distribution of fake currency notes to involvement in the illegal trade in radioactive material.”

Eventually the international pressure to close the bank became too strong. Sources in Vienna believe the US played an important behind-the-scenes role in finally shuttering Golden Star’s modest office on 12 Kaiserstrasse in the Austrian capital. Until then, Vienna had been North Korea’s center for financial transactions in Europe and the Middle East. Visitors to North Korea have noted that euro coins in circulation in the country – the US dollar is not welcome in Pyongyang – invariably came from Austria. (Euro notes are the same in all European Union countries, but coins designate individual member countries.)

Last October, in response to Pyongyang’s nuclear tests, Japan froze a dollar-denominated account that North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank held with an unnamed Japanese bank. The account had a balance of $1,000 and had not been active for nearly a decade, so the move was mainly symbolic: to demonstrate to North Korea that it cannot use banks in Japan for any deposits, big or small.

So it is hardly surprising that North Korea is looking for new ways to manage and maintain its international business interests and for new partners when it is increasingly locked out of most foreign countries. That is where Thailand apparently comes into the picture.

In 2004, trade between Thailand and North Korea for the first time overtook trade between Japan and North Korea. Previously, a string of North Korean-controlled front companies, managed by the Chosen Soren, or the Pyongyang General Association of Korean Residents in Japan, had supplied North Korea with computers, electronic goods and other vital items.

In 2003, North Korea’s total trade volume to Japan was just over $265 million and fell even lower in 2004. At the same time, trade between Thailand and North Korea rose to more than $331 million in 2004. Two-way trade between Thailand and North Korea totaled $328 million in 2005, with Thai exports to North Korea amounting to $207 million and North Korean imports to Thailand totaling $121 million.

During January-November 2006 – the latest statistics available from the Thai Customs Department – trade totaled about $345 million, with Thai exports accounting for $200 million and North Korean imports $145 million. Thai imports of gold and silver have pushed those trade figures higher.

North Korea’s trade with Thailand grew mainly under the previous government of Thaksin Shinawatra, who at one point proposed signing a free-trade agreement between the two countries. In August 2005, Thaksin was formally invited by Kim Jong-il to visit Pyongyang. The visit never materialized, and since Thaksin was ousted last year in a military coup, the future of Thai-North Korean relations is very much in doubt.

But gold and silver are highly fungible and North Korea apparently has lots of the commodities. It appears Kim Jong-il has for now found at least one golden path around the international sanctions imposed against his regime’s nuclear tests.


Banco Delta Asia Says It Bought `Large Share’ of N. Korea Gold

Monday, December 11th, 2006

Bloomberg (Hat Tip DPRK Studies)
Stuart Biggs

Banco Delta Asia S.A.R.L., the Macau, China-based bank accused by the U.S. of money laundering for North Korea, said it bought gold from the communist state in a filing to the U.S. Treasury.

North Korea has made the unfreezing of about $24 million in assets held at Banco Delta Asia a pre-condition to returning to six-nation talks over its nuclear weapons program that broke off in September 2005. The U.S. alleged that the bank helped North Korean officials accept “surreptitious” multi-million dollar transactions, some linked to drug trafficking.

Banco Delta Asia, in an Oct. 18 letter to the U.S. Treasury Department by law firm Heller Ehrman LLP, said the bank “purchased a large share of the gold bullion produced by North Korea” prior to the allegations and no longer does so.

“Money could have been laundered, but there is no specific evidence that the bank was aware that it was being used for this purpose, nor that it facilitated any criminal activities,” the letter said. The bank “paid insufficient attention to maintaining its own books.”

Banco Delta Asia also said North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank, described by the U.S. as the Pyongyang government’s main financial agent for sales of arms and ballistic missiles, remained a customer for three months after Tanchon was blacklisted by the U.S. in June 2005 “due to shortcomings in the information technology systems.”

The bank said it put in place new managers after the U.S. action and closed North Korean-related accounts, hired an outside firm to set up procedures against money laundering and asked the Treasury to reconsider its ruling.

“The Bank has not done any business with North Korean or North Korean-related entities for over a year and pledged not to do any in the future,” the letter said.

The six-party negotiations may resume on Dec. 18 or 19, Yonhap News Agency reported, citing unidentified South Korean government sources.


N. Korea kept millions at Vietnam bank

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

From Kyodo News:

North Korea’s Tanchon Commercial Bank, which has been identified by the United States as the primary financial facilitator of that country’s ballistic missile program, had until recently held dollar and euro accounts at Vietnam’s Military Commercial Bank, a Military Commercial Bank official said recently.

The official said millions of both dollars and euros, respectively, had been deposited in the accounts.

But the funds were hastily transferred to other banks, including a German bank, in July after the State Bank of Vietnam, the country’s central bank, acceded to a U.S. request and began checking on any North Korean accounts involved in suspicious banking transactions.

Tanchon Commercial Bank is among North Korean entities that the United States has since June last year designated as proliferators of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, or their supporters, imposing sanctions aimed at denying them access to the U.S. financial and commercial systems.

The United States is urging other members of the United Nations to identify, track and freeze financial transactions and assets of such North Korean entities as the first step in implementing a binding U.N. Security Council resolution adopted last month.

The unanimous Security Council resolution, which condemned North Korea’s ballistic missile launches in early July, requires all U.N. member nations to prevent the transfer of financial resources that could help North Korea’s missile and WMD programs.       

The U.S. Treasury Department identifies Tanchon Commercial Bank as the main financial agent for North Korea’s sales of conventional arms, ballistic missiles, and goods related to the assembly and manufacture of such weapons, which have provided Pyongyang with a significant portion of its export earnings and financially aided its own weapons development and arms-related purchases.

The Pyongyang-based bank held accounts at Macao’s Banco Delta Asia SARL, which the United States in September 2005 subjected to sanctions as a “primary money laundering concern” that had facilitated a range of North Korean illicit activities.

While it was not clear when the funds were deposited in the North Korean accounts at the Vietnam’s Military Commercial Bank, the bank official said they were transferred from a German bank and from the Bank for Foreign Trade of Vietnam, or Vietcombank.

According to sources, financial intelligence authorities of the United States, South Korea and Japan recently compiled a report on North Korea’s overseas bank accounts that singled out 23 accounts in 10 countries, including Russia, deemed suspicious. Among the total, around 10 were in Vietnamese banks.

U.S. Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey, responsible for terrorism and financial intelligence issues, visited Vietnam in mid-July and called for Hanoi’s cooperation in investigating and freezing the suspicious North Korean bank accounts.