Non-proliferation and the Law-abiding World

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)



Secretary Tillerson has promised tougher action in rounding up support for UN sanctions, even going so far as to suggest that secondary sanctions might be in the works. But as we have pointed out, such measures depend heavily on cooperation from jurisdictions that may be less than cooperative. (In March, we reproduced a list of countries that offer visa-free travel to North Koreans as a useful place to start to look for sanctions busters.) But rogues are not the only problem. North Korea and its foreign lackeys abroad are taking advantage of countries with high regard for laws and institutions as well.

An outstanding post at Arms Control Wonk by Andrea Berger shows how even in jurisdictions like Singapore, legalism and failure to understand the political economy of North Korea can get in the way of prosecutions. It has long been a huge loophole of UN sanctions that resolutions were targeted narrowly at WMD activities; in effect, you had to trace the dollar from the proscribed activity to the weapons program. But such demands are not only difficult to make, they overlook the fact that North Korea is a fused state in which dollars earned by state trading companies anywhere are essentially under control of the regime (allowing for at least some leakage in corruption).

Berger looks at the Singaporean legal case against Chinpo Shipping, which had funded the Chong Chon Gang’s weapons smuggling operation in 2013. The ship—en route from Cuba to North Korea when it was interdicted by Panamanian authorities—contained two MiG fighter jets, engines, military vehicles and surface-to-air missiles (among other contraband) concealed underneath 200,000 bags of sugar.

Following the interdiction, according to Berger’s post:

“Singaporean prosecutors filed two charges against Tan [Chinpo’s director] and Chinpo: one for carrying on a remittance business without a valid remittance license; and one for providing financial services or transferring financial assets or resources ‘that may reasonably be used to contribute to the nuclear-related, ballistic missile-related, or other weapons of mass destruction-related programs or activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ (Regulation 12b of Singapore’s United Nations Regulations 2010).”

On the unlicensed remittances charge, Chinpo was found guilty but on the second count, the legal waters proved murkier. Chinpo was originally found guilty on the second WMD finance charge. But on appeal the Singaporean High Court last Friday agreed with Chinpo that it could not be proven that the weapons Chinpo was smuggling could reasonably contribute to the nuclear program. As Berger notes, the high court’s conclusion was that unless it’s going directly to the nuclear program, it’s not proliferation finance. But financing conventional weapons was also banned by UNSCR 1874 (2009). Had Singapore simply updated its laws to reflect this, the second charge should have been a slam dunk for the prosecutors.

Singapore has made some efforts to clamp down on North Korean illicit networks, including terminating its visa-waiver program with the DPRK last year, but clearly there is room for improvement and certainly a need for legislative action to keep up with the uptick in UNSCR resolutions. Germany has similarly struggled to fully carry out all of the latest UNSCR mandates. We noted last month that the DPRK government was leasing out a building on its Berlin diplomatic compound for purportedly $41,000 per month to a private hostel owner. Just last week, German authorities finally dropped the shoe on the operation. In countries with high regard for the rule of law and institutions, raising the costs to aiders and abettors of North Korea’s illicit activities should be a priority. 

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