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North Korea

North Korean Dirty Money, American Silence - A View From China

Why has Washington stayed so quiet about South Korean allegations of secret North Korean bank accounts?

He's in the money
He's in the money

BEIJING - On March 12, the Chosun Ilbo, one of South Korea's leading newspapers, published an exclusive report claiming that "both South Korea and the U.S." have confirmed that North Korea possesses hundreds of overseas bank accounts in dozens of countries including China and Singapore. The sum amounts to $4 to 5 billion. This allegation includes amounts far larger than when in 2005 the United States, through the Macau authorities, froze the $25 million of funds that North Korea had deposited in the Banco Delta Asia (BDA), and this with the cooperation of China.

Despite UN Security Council resolutions and opposition from nearly the entire international community, North Korea has gone ahead with three nuclear tests and a series of rocket launches. The UN Security Council has now passed four resolutions -- in 2006, 2009, and two in 2013 -- and has also imposed increasingly stringent financial sanctions against Pyongyang. Meanwhile, beyond the UN resolutions, the United States and Japan have also imposed separate sanctions focused on North Korea's financial sector.

The reason why sanctions are often focused on the country's financial system, banks and overseas accounts is because the international community is convinced that North Korea must rely on overt and covert international trade to obtain the necessary funding for maintaining and developing its cutting-edge military technology, and to sustain its nuclear and rocket programs. It also needs foreign currencies for importing the parts and equipment that it's incapable of developing itself.

Besides, it is widely believed that the Kim clan and many of North Korea regime's high officials are passionate about western material comforts, often importing top-end luxury goods with foreign cash. Were these overseas financial "arteries" cut, it would bring enormous psychological pressure and discomfort to the regime.

The 2005 BDA case -- where America had conclusive evidence of North Korea counterfeiting currencies and succeeded in freezing its foreign secret account -- has up to now been the most successful intervention. But it was also the only one. The vast number of these illicit accounts are believed to be spread all over the world, and usually involve complex subterfuge and false names. Unless there is enough hard evidence, it is inappropriate for the UN Security Council or Washington to apply pressure to countries or banks, and even more difficult to exert target sanctions accordingly, since it would be disastrous if the allegation was ever proved to be wrong.

Cash for nukes, or luxe?

Despite Chosun Ilbo's claim that North Korea owns hundreds of foreign accounts, the release of information seems to come only from the South Korean side. The American media have up to now had a lukewarm response to this report and the U.S. government hasn’t said a word. Chosun Ilbo declared its scoop "verified," yet did not reveal any names of banks or account holders.

At the same time, the South Korean news sources devote most of their attention to speculating whether Kim Jong-un's secret accounts are to be used for the nuclear program, for supporting North Korea's financial and military spending, on the rumored "black transactions", or purely for the luxury consumption of the high officials of the regime.

Chosun Ilbo published another article on the matter signed by its reporter Kim Zheng-Ming, which declared that South Korea "needs the United States" to come forward so as to bolster the evidence and gain the cooperation of other countries, including China, in blocking North Korea.

It is not difficult to see that because lack of hard evidence as well as a "powerful diplomatic force" (Kim Zheng-Ming's words) this "confirmation" is really an indirect and desperate attempt by South Korea to try to leverage American power.

However, as a mature country, the United States has always been slow and steady over serious matters such as North Korea's nuclear issue. Although it has been highly sensitive to the matter, and it understands fully the importance of cutting off North Korea's overseas financial access, the U.S. nonetheless takes an experienced and astute approach. It rarely opens fire verbally, but when it does it's well prepared and the target has to be hit precisely. It is therefore very unlikely that South Korea will achieve its purpose of using America's weight without conclusive evidence to put pressure on what the South Koreans say are “dozens of relevant countries.”

The Korean Peninsula is basically a geopolitical issue, and more particularly, a game of trade-offs and compromises between two great powers. North Korea's secret foreign accounts and financial channels have always been the focus of the U.S. intelligence agencies. As soon as the United States judges that the evidence is sufficient and that the time is ripe, America will resolutely take measures -- regardless of South Korea's disapproval. But until that happens, despite the buzz that their newspapers try to create, South Korea's efforts will be in vain.

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