For months, the Trump administration had considered cutting off North Korea’s access to world banking by cracking down on Chinese banks believed to have enabled the regime to conduct international transactions.
Some influential members of Congress have urged a move against major Chinese banks, arguing that it would compel the Chinese to escalate their efforts to detect and block financial transactions made by the North Korean regime. The ability of the regime to conduct international banking and access foreign currency is considered essential to the financing of its weapons programs.
The danger is that punishing a major Chinese bank could not only anger China but also run the risk of precipitating worldwide financial woes. Some of the Chinese banks are among the world’s largest — bigger than the U.S. banks deemed “too big to fail” — and damaging them with sanctions could have far-reaching effects on the world economy.
“They’re in a bind,” said Peter Harrell, a former State Department official who worked on sanctions in the Obama administration and is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for New American Security. “I have been sympathetic to the strategy the Trump administration has taken over the last year. They have needed to move carefully. There could be economic reverberations. But I think they’re to the point where they need to push China harder.”
Some influential Democrats and Republicans agree. The chair and a member of a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee sent a letter to the administration in August with the names of 12 large Chinese banks that, according to a Justice Department filing, had provided bank accounts for a company conducting illicit trade with North Korea.
“We must target major Chinese banks doing business with North Korea, such as China Merchants Bank and even big state-owned banks like the Agricultural Bank of China,” House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Edward R. Royce (R-Calif.) said in September. “China’s biggest banks, even state-owned banks, still do business in North Korea. That’s got to end completely.”
Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the co-author of the letter to the administration, also urged action.
“The national security people at Treasury there are ready to go — they have aggressive sanctions ready to go against major Chinese banks,” Sherman said this week.
In a statement, the Treasury Department, which imposes such sanctions, said: “The U.S. is committed to relentlessly identifying and designating entities who help North Korea evade sanctions, regardless of the country where the individual, entity, or vessel is located, including those associated with China and Russia.”
Previous efforts foundered
While it is not known which foreign financial institutions may be under review by the United States, investigations by the Justice Department, the United Nations and prosecutors in Singapore have reported that several Chinese banks have provided services to North Korean front companies.
Those foreign bank accounts are essential to the regime because they enable it to make international deals and gain access to foreign currency. Much of North Korea’s trade is conducted in dollars and other foreign currencies because their suppliers do not want North Korean won.
So far, however, efforts to cut off North Korea’s access to foreign banks have foundered, in large part because banks around the world have failed to screen out the North Korean front companies.
Countries “were found to be exerting insufficient scrutiny on the activities of DPRK bank representatives resident in, or moving through, their territory,” according to an upcoming U.N. report. The existing financial sanctions against North Korea, it says, are “systematically” being undermined.
Punishing a major Chinese bank to encourage heightened vigilance, however, could backfire on the United States, some say. The failure of a large Chinese bank could have the same kind of tumultuous economic consequences that the failure of Lehman Brothers, the investment bank, had during the Great Recession.
“The implosion of one of the world’s largest financial institutions would send shock waves through the international financial system and trigger large and unpredictable fallout,” former acting treasury secretary Adam Szubin told Congress last year.
The result, as some see it, is a dangerous stalemate.
“For 20 years, we’ve had the same policy toward North Korea, and during that time, they’ve gotten to a position of being able to destroy all of Los Angeles,” Sherman said. Yet “Wall Street is dead-set opposed to calling into question our trade relationship with China.”
Enforcement remains key
The measures announced by the Trump administration on Feb. 23 added 56 entities — 28 ships, 27 mainly shipping businesses and one individual — to a list of hundreds of others sanctioned by the United States.
The new sanction listings are expected to make it more difficult for those shipping companies to arrange financing and insurance. Ports in some countries will forbid the sanctioned ships from docking, too.
“Today we put the strongest sanctions on [North] Korea that we have ever put on a country,” Trump said.
But several experts looked askance at the “strongest sanctions” claim.
The new sanctions will “slow things down,” said Robert Huish, a professor at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia who has studied maritime sanctions. But “these are not the toughest sanctions the U.S. has ever rolled out.”
For example, he said, the trade sanctions directed at Cuba in the ’60s and ’90s were much tougher.
The problem with the new sanctions, like others on ships and shipping companies, is enforcement.
North Korea has shown an ability to adapt to such sanctions by renaming ships, falsifying paperwork and avoiding ports by transferring goods at sea.
“The North Koreans will take measures to rename and reflag these vessels,” said Farley Mesko, chief executive of Sayari Analytics, a Washington-based financial intelligence company that tracks illicit trade with North Korea.
Moreover, the U.S. sanctions will not be heeded by all nations. Ports in China and Russia may service the ships, and insurers elsewhere may continue to issue them insurance.
“The devil is always in the details in these things,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, the author of a book about the North Korean economy and a researcher at AEI. “It remains to be seen how effective these are — that will depend upon implementation. But it’s certainly a move in the right direction.”
Sanctions can devastate
The threat of a U.S. sanction against a foreign bank, by contrast, is considered a powerful motivation to shun North Korean accounts. A U.S. bank sanction strips a bank of the ability to conduct business in dollars — and most major banks rely on their access to dollars.
Indeed, the effect of a banking sanction can be devastating. In February, for example, the United States took action to sanction a small Latvian bank allegedly connected to North Korea’s ballistic missile program. The owners denied culpability, but soon after announced the bank would be liquidated.
The United States also moved in June to sanction a small Chinese bank. Treasury officials said that sanction prompted heightened vigilance at some Chinese banks, particularly those near the border with North Korea.
But evidence that other Chinese banks have worked with North Korean front companies — wittingly or not — is widespread, and advocates for more sanctions say that others should be punished.
● Three North Korean bank representatives affiliated with the regime opened more than 38 accounts in banks in China and Hong Kong, according to a September U.N. report.
● A Justice Department filing unsealed last year asserted that some of China’s largest banks were providing bank accounts for Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development, a Chinese company that allegedly conspired with a North Korean bank to evade U.S. sanctions. Some of the banks involved are among the largest in the world — Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Construction Bank Corporation and Agricultural Bank of China.
● Officials with the Bank of China’s Singapore branch helped a shipping company involved in North Korea arms trade to avoid U.S. sanctions, according to Singaporean court testimony. The bank officials instructed the shipping company to avoid detection by omitting ship names from payment forms.
In response, administration officials have said they are focused on banking that benefits the regime — whether in China or anywhere else. Banks in Europe and elsewhere also have allowed North Koreans to conduct banking, according to U.N. reports.
Kim Jong Un “still has access to the international financial system because he has North Korean brokers and agents operating with impunity, brazenly, abroad in foreign jurisdictions,” Assistant Treasury Secretary Marshall Billingslea testified in September. “That has to stop, and so that is our next step.”
Two months later, Billingslea said the Treasury Department had urged heightened vigilance at Chinese banks near the North Korean border.
“We have a lot of concerns, and we continue to investigate,” Billingslea said.
And last month, Mnuchin said “I assure you, we are reviewing information as it associates with banks that are doing illicit activities.”
While many credit the Trump administration and the United Nations for ramping up the economic pressure on the regime over the past year, critics want more. They say that closing off North Korean access to international banking may be the most effective means of undermining their weapons program. They point to the massive fines U.S. officials levied against foreign banks alleged to have aided Iranian clients as a possible model.
Joshua Stanton, who runs the site One Free Korea and has advised congressional staffers on North Korea sanctions law, is among them.
“I’ll believe the pressure [on North Korea] is really maximum when the Treasury Department starts hitting the Chinese banks that are laundering Kim Jong Un’s ill-gotten gains with nine-digit penalties,” he said.