Squeeze on North Korea's money supply yields results
Cash crunch seems to have helped bring nation back to talks.
Los Angeles Times
By Josh Meyer, Times Staff Writer - November 2, 2006
Washington — For three years, the Bush administration has waged a campaign to choke off North Korea's access to the world's financial system, where U.S. officials say the nation launders money from criminal enterprises to fuel its trade in missile technology and its efforts to build a nuclear arsenal.
That effort has started to pay off.
U.S. pressure forced Macao this year to freeze North Korean assets in one of its banks, then foiled North Korea's panicky attempts to find friendly bankers in Vietnam, Mongolia, Singapore and Europe. And after North Korea's Oct. 9 nuclear test, China ordered some of its major banks to cease financial transactions with the country.
The cash crunch appears to have played a key role in North Korea's decision Tuesday to return to six-nation talks over its nuclear ambitions. North Korean officials said that as part of the talks, they wanted to raise the issue of lifting financial sanctions.
"They're not coming back because they want to give up nuclear weapons," said David L. Asher, the U.S. State Department's point man on North Korea until last year. "They are feeling the financial pressure and the cutoff from the international financial system, so they are trying to make nice."
But the U.S. effort still faces two enormous obstacles: Russia and China.
North Korea continues to have access to banks in both countries, according to current and former U.S. officials who say that without those nations' cooperation, the U.S. effort will be largely ineffective.
Both major powers have historically been more concerned about protecting their strategic interests than in joining U.S. efforts to sanction their neighbor.
Stuart Levey, the U.S. Treasury undersecretary in charge of investigating terrorist financial webs, has traveled to Russia and China, including a trip to Moscow last week. Levey said he had "constructive discussions" with his Russian counterparts, but declined to say whether they would act. A Russian Foreign Ministry official said they had "agreed to further cooperation."
U.S. officials believe that both countries will continue to resist American appeals for a further crackdown in part because of their "historic ties to North Korea," said a senior counter-terrorism official, who spoke about the U.S. campaign on condition of anonymity.
Evidence gathered over the decades by Washington indicates that North Korea has become what some U.S. officials call a "Soprano state." The government in Pyongyang used its embassies to coordinate illegal activities, its ships to move heroin and other contraband, and its factories to make counterfeit $100 bills and bogus brand-name cigarettes, U.S. officials say.
Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader, used the profits to fund his nuclear program, U.S. officials say, but also to import Mercedes-Benzes, pricey cognacs and other luxury items to buy loyalty.
Washington fears that North Korea could decide to use its well-worn trafficking networks to sell Iran or others the hardware or know-how to make weapons of mass destruction.
So administration officials decided in 2003 to attack by unconventional means. They created the Illicit Activities Initiative, a classified, multi-agency effort aimed at curbing North Korea's black-market networks.
A year ago, the United States moved on one of North Korea's bankers, officially designating the small Banco Delta Asia in Macao as a "primary money-laundering concern" under the Patriot Act.
Pyongyang, U.S. authorities found, banked much of its criminal proceeds in the former Portuguese colony, a freewheeling gambling haven, which became an autonomously governed Chinese territory in 1999.
"Banco Delta was just a thumbtack against their skin," said Asher, who headed the Illicit Activities Initiative. "We knew that behind the skin was a central artery. When we pricked it, blood was going to start coming out fast."
The Treasury action created a run on Banco Delta, which lost a third of its deposits in six days, and forced the government to seize control, sending an unmistakable message to bankers about the consequences of dealing with the North Koreans...
Oh, golly this has it all doesn't it?
Dissing of the Russians and the Chinese. The anonymous source within the government casting aspersions. The pop culture reference. The mis-association of goods smuggling and nuclear sales. The chest thumping by the former Bush official, now at the Heritage Foundation.
Read the whole article. You may find it surprising that the writing of an exposé on how a U.S. policy affects Northeast Asian security and politics does not require talking to an actual Northeast Asian.
How about calling up a Japanese, since the denizens of the Land of the Rising Sun are ostensibly on "our" side in every which way that counts?
And where is the other shoe? Where is the little boy in the crowd, noting the Emperor's distinct lack of dress?
Did the author never even think of asking:
"Gee, did the financial sanctions pressure the North Koreans into walking out of the Six Party Talks, fire off their missiles, including a prototype ICBM, in July and test a nuclear device in October?"
Oh, I know, the North Koreans may have planned to do these things all along--but is there anyone who does not now believe that the financial sanctions pushed the Dear Leader to accelerate the timetable, just a little?
I frequently give the Japanese press a hard time for printing outright falsehoods and flightless trial balloons . However, the ink-stained wretches of Japan have an excuse: the "balance" requirement in the Press Law makes it hard for their editors to state "what this person is saying is a blatant, transparent lie." Instead, they print the lie, hoping that the story will either sink into the muck of its own absurdity or a reputable person will come forth to deny the story.
The author and editors of this article ostensibly labor under no such constraints.
To print an uncritical regurgitation of a self-absolution ("Ladies and Gentlemen of the Press: the Operation was a Success. The Patient, Unfortunately, Unaccountably, Died.") is a dereliction of intellectual duty.
If the financial sanctions program is to be counted a feather in the Bush Administration's cap, Amaterasu help us Northeast Asia residents from a Bush Administration failure.