Foreign Policy

Time to act against rogue North Korean banks


North Korea maintains access to the international financial system despite the robust sanctions regime built up over the last decade to prevent such access. The U.S. Treasury Department must take a page out of its Iran sanctions playbook and bring the full weight of its sanctions power against Pyongyang’s financial activities that sustain the Kim regime.

A United Nations report last week noted that three U.N.-designated North Korean banks — Bank of East Land, Korea Daesong Bank, and Korea Kwangson Banking Corporation (KKBC) — remain on SWIFT, a consortium of banks that provide secure financial messaging services.

{mosads}This was not SWIFT’s first dance with rogue regimes; in 2012 it provided these services to Iranian banks, including the Central Bank of Iran. SWIFT finally acted against Tehran’s banks, including those designated for proliferation and terrorism, after Congress began consideration of sanctions legislation prohibiting the practice.


SWIFT claims that it has removed the U.N.-designated banks after Belgium revoked authorizations for the service. (A search of SWIFT’s website Wednesday reveals that the banks still have bank-identification codes needed to use the system.) Belgium should not have provided the authorizations in the first place, and the U.N. noted that they were violations of its sanctions. These authorizations also likely violated the discretionary sanctions in the North Korea Sanctions and Policy Enhancement Act of 2016 against knowingly providing financial support for U.N.-designated persons.

The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that four U.S.-designated North Korean banks (Foreign Trade Bank, Kumgang Bank, Koryo Credit Development Bank, North East Bank) have access to SWIFT.

A review of SWIFT’s website shows that U.S.-designated Daedong Credit Bank is in the system, and the U.N. report noted that the bank had asked to be removed from the network. Three additional North Korean banks (Brilliance Banking Corporation Ltd., Koryo Commercial Bank Ltd., and Golden Triangle Bank) have SWIFT codes as well.

Some of these banks have been designated for proliferation activities, including providing support to U.N.-designated entities. Treasury stated in June 2013 that Daedong Credit Bank had processed hundreds of financial transactions for North Korea’s proliferation activities. Several banks were designated as part of Pyongyang’s financial industry. It is unclear how the U.S., Belgium, and SWIFT can justify providing any financial services at all for these banks.

SWIFT’s bylaws note that it can terminate a user if its activities harm the company’s “reputation, brand or goodwill.” The Financial Action Task Force, the international standard-setting body on counter-terrorism finance and anti-money laundering, has called for its members to impose countermeasures against North Korea since 2011. Last year, the U.S. declared North Korea a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern, a declaration which cut Pyongyang from the U.S. financial system and prohibited foreign banks from providing indirect access.

Relevant Executive Orders provide for sanctions against those who provide financial support to U.S.-designated persons. It is impossible to argue that SWIFT access does not count as financial support to these North Korean banks.

Reuters reported Thursday that SWIFT will remove all North Korean banks from its system, an important development, but North Korea’s SWIFT access is a symptom of a larger problem: malaise toward Pyongyang’s financial activities. The Justice Department in September 2016 revealed a China-North Korea scheme that provided the Kim regime access to the American banking system over a six-year period. No Chinese bank was sanctioned or fined for this activity. The North Korean bank at the center of this network is one of the U.N.-designated banks on SWIFT that were noted in the U.N. report.

In the December 2015 trial of Chinpo Shipping in Singapore, a Bank of China representative suggested transactions in dollars would be successful if the company removed references to North Korean vessels in wire transfers. Bank of China should have been fined by the U.S. even if such remarks were limited to a single overzealous employee, and the U.S. must clarify that this conduct is unacceptable.

Both the U.N. and Reuters have reported on North Korea’s efforts to sell military equipment from a front company purportedly in Malaysia. This network and its banks have not been sanctioned.

Congress should close the SWIFT loophole and enact mandatory sanctions against those who provide services to any North Korean bank. Given Pyongyang’s history and its designation as a jurisdiction of money laundering concern, Treasury should use the authorities in E.O. 13722 to designate all North Korean banks as part of the country’s financial services industry.

A crucial lesson from the U.S. experience of Iran sanctions is that rogue regimes value access to the dollar, and Washington must prevent them from using it. The Kim regime is developing a nuclear weapon that can reach the United States, and just simulated a missile attack against a base in Japan. There is no justification for providing this regime access to the financial system. The United States must send Kim Jong Un and his protectors in Beijing a clear message that its days of looking the other way are over.

Anthony Ruggiero, a Senior Fellow at Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, was advisor to the U.S. delegation to the Six-Party Talks’ 2005 rounds and spent 17 years in the U.S. government.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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