U.S. says N. Korea coal paid for weapons

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NATIONAL - PETER WHORISKEY

The United Na­tions Se­cu­rity Coun­cil voted Satur­day for the third time in two years to block coun­tries from buy­ing North Korean coal, the coun­try’s pri­mary ex­port, in a move in­tended to choke off fund­ing from Kim Jong Un’s weapons pro­grams.

The new ban plugs a loop­hole that al­lowed North Korea to sell coal to China un­der the guise of “hu­man­i­tar­ian” trade, even though much of North Korea’s coal trade has been de­voted to weapons de­vel­op­ment, not hu­man­i­tar­ian pur­poses, ac­cord­ing to re­cent U.S. court fil­ings.

The hu­man­i­tar­ian loop­hole was large enough that after the first such U.N. ban in March 2016, Chi­nese com­pa­nies ac­tu­ally im­ported more North Korean coal.

Doc­u­ments from a re­cently un­sealed U.S. court fil­ing, com­bined with an­other fed­eral case, sug­gest that much of the money China has paid to North Korea for coal over the years went to­ward the coun­try’s weapons and mil­i­tary ef­forts.

The coal trade cited in the court doc­u­ments, which has ac­counted for as much as a third of North Korean ex­ports, helps ex­plain how North Korea con­tin­ued to de­velop its weapons pro­grams de­spite be­ing im­pov­er­ished and un­der trade sanc­tions. The con­nec­tions to the mil­i­tary also un­der­mine Chi­nese claims that their im­ports were ben­e­fit­ing North Korean civil­ians.

“We con­sid­ered that to be a very nar­row [hu­man­i­tar­ian] ex­cep­tion, but it soon be­came clear that not all oth­ers shared our view,” a State Depart­ment spokesman said be­fore the vote.

In the most re­cent court fil­ing, un­sealed last month, U.S. gov­ern­ment at­tor­neys were granted a seizure war­rant against the largest Chi­nese im­porter of North Korean coal and four re­lated front com­pa­nies after pre­sent­ing ev­i­dence that the Chi­nese com­pany’s trans­ac­tions with North Korea were “ul­ti­mately ben­e­fit­ing sanc­tioned North Korean end users, in­clud­ing North Korea mil­i­tary and North Korea weapons pro­grams.”

The doc­u­ments cite a de­fec­tor, deemed “re­li­able,” who said that the vast ma­jor­ity of the rev­enue from the coun­try’s coal ex­ports go to­ward the mil­i­tary, nu­clear mis­siles and weapons pro­grams.

Those dis­clo­sures fol­lowed a court case filed in Septem­ber in which fed­eral at­tor­neys cited a spread­sheet show­ing a ma­jor Chi­nese coal im­porter mak­ing pur­chases from var­i­ous North Korean gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

The Chi­nese im­porter was also pur­chas­ing from a North Korean com­pany con­trolled by a se­cre­tive gov­ern­ment branch be­lieved to be con­duct­ing il­licit ac­tiv­i­ties and slush funds for po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. “What these cases ex­pose is that call­ing [China’s] coal busi­ness with North Korea ‘hu­man­i­tar­ian’ is a cyn­i­cal lie,” said Joshua Stan­ton, who runs the site One Free Korea and ad­vises House and Se­nate staff on North Korea sanc­tions law. “There is no such thing as truly pri­vate in­dus­try in North Korea.”

Asked last week about the coal im­ports, a spokesman for the Chi­nese em­bassy said in a state­ment that “China has been com­pre­hen­sively and ac­cu­rately im­ple­ment­ing the U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions.”

Ex­actly how to rein in North Korea’s at­tempts to build a nu­clear mis­sile ca­pa­ble of hit­ting the United States has been a mat­ter of de­bate for years, but re­cent mis­sile launches by the reclu­sive coun­try, in­clud­ing one last month, have in­ten­si­fied the dis­cus­sion.

After that mis­sile launch, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump tweeted that he is “very dis­ap­pointed in China. Our fool­ish past lead­ers have al­lowed them to make hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars a year in trade, yet they do NOTH­ING for us with North Korea, just talk.”

What’s undis­puted is the im­por­tance of coal ex­ports to the North Korean econ­omy. From 2010 to 2015, coal ship­ments ac­counted for about a third of North Korea’s to­tal ex­port rev­enue, ac­cord­ing to fig­ures cited by the Con­gres­sional Re­search Ser­vice. The coal ex­ports, which gen­er­ated more than $1 bil­lion in an­nual rev­enue, were mainly pur­chased by Chi­nese com­pa­nies.

While China says its re­cent coal pur­chases com­ply with U.N. rules and ben­e­fit North Korean civil­ians, U.S. of­fi­cials have re­ported that at least some of the coal trade is di­rectly prof­it­ing the North Korean mil­i­tary.

The Trea­sury Depart­ment last year, for ex­am­ple, said that a “sig­nif­i­cant share” of the money for North Korea’s nu­clear and bal­lis­tic mis­sile pro­gram was com­ing from min­ing op­er­a­tions that of­ten use “work­ers in slave-like con­di­tions.” Those nat­u­ral re­sources, in­clud­ing coal, were sold abroad.

The more re­cent court fil­ings by U.S. of­fi­cials as­sert con­clu­sive ev­i­dence of the con­nec­tions be­tween the North Korean ex­ports and the mil­i­tary, cit­ing busi­ness records, and give a bet­ter sense of the ex­tent of the mag­ni­tude of the trade’s con­tri­bu­tion to the mil­i­tary.

“Kim Jong Un puts over 95 per­cent of North Korea’s for­eign cur­rency earn­ings gen­er­ated from coal ex­ports to­ward the ad­vance­ment of … North Korea’s mil­i­tary and North Korea’s nu­clear mis­siles and weapons pro­grams,” ac­cord­ing to the de­fec­tor, who is quoted in an af­fi­davit filed by as­sis­tant U.S. at­tor­neys for the District of Columbia.

The new ban plugs a loop­hole that al­lowed North Korea to sell coal to China un­der the guise of “hu­man­i­tar­ian” trade, even though much of North Korea’s coal trade has been de­voted to weapons de­vel­op­ment, not hu­man­i­tar­ian pur­poses, ac­cord­ing to re­cent U.S. court fil­ings.

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