The Trump administration decided earlier this year not to enforce money-laundering laws against two large Chinese banks, Agricultural Bank of China and China Construction Bank, suspected of handling transactions involving North Korea.
Washington did not act against China’s large institutions for fear of consequences. “The idea of a U.S. ban was soon shelved, primarily because of fears that punishing lenders of that size might send shock waves through the global financial system,” Bloomberg reported Friday. Moreover, “officials worried about potential systemic damage and retaliatory measures from China.”
“There is no such thing as ‘too big to sanction,’” sanctions expert Joshua Stanton wrote in his blog, One Free Korea, in February. But where China is concerned, Stanton has been proved wrong. Not only has Trump not designated the two banks under Section 311 of the Patriot Act as “primary money laundering concerns,” he has not even fined them. The Obama administration imposed onerous fines on European banks in 2013, 2014, and 2015 for busting Iran sanctions, and those penalties proved effective in forcing compliance.
As a result of its inaction, the White House is now giving Chinese institutions free passes to violate American statutes. The administration’s decision is both an abrogation of its responsibilities and injurious to its efforts to disarm the Kim regime.
Bloomberg reports the U.S. Treasury began looking at the banks, China’s second- and third-largest, last September due to their involvement with Dandong Hongxiang Industrial Development Co. The CEO of Dandong Hongxiong, Ma Xiaohong, talked publicly about her company’s North Korea business, so AgBank and Construction Bank, as these institutions are called, had to know they were holding and transferring cash either coming from or going to the North.
Treasury in September 2016 sanctioned Dandong Hongxiang, Ma, and three other individuals for links to the Kim regime, and at the same time the Justice Department unsealed indictments against the same parties for laundering money through the U.S. financial system. Justice also seized cash in 25 Chinese bank accounts.
The U.S. then did not charge any bank. “There are no allegations of wrongdoing by the U.S. correspondent banks or foreign banks that maintain these accounts,” the Justice Department stated at the time of the seizures. The statement even then was not credible, and a Wall Street Journal editorial noted the Obama administration had signaled that Chinese banks were “untouchable.”
The failure to act against the banks then was troubling, but the seizures were probably intended as a signal to Beijing. The Chinese, however, realized they would not be touched and continued to handle Kim cash.
In response to continued Chinese laundering, the Trump administration on June 29 of last year designated Bank of Dandong, another bank Ma used, a primary money laundering concern. The designation meant the bank could no longer clear dollar transactions through the U.S. banking system.
Joshua Stanton told The Daily Beast at the time that the designation was “an important first step, one that will send a clear message to the Chinese banks that have long laundered North Korea’s money and aided its proliferation.”
Unfortunately, this clear message was also ignored. China’s banks, at least as late as last December, were handing cash in connection with commodity transactions between Chinese and North Korean parties, and signs point to continuing money laundering at this time.
And at this time, Beijing’s enforcement of sanctions has markedly deteriorated. For instance, new North Korean workers are turning up in China, a clear violation of U.N. Security Council measures.
And late last month there was a rub-it-in-your-face moment. In public, Chinese ruler Xi Jinping presented gifts to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and his wife when they visited Beijing. U.N. sanctions prohibit the transfer of the items he gifted to the Kims, so by making the gifts with an estimated value of $394,000 he was telling Washington—and everyone else—he would do what he wanted.
Xi’s open defiance naturally follows from Washington’s reluctance to hold his country accountable. Trump has yet to dial up the heat to its highest setting. “Chinese banks represent the last frontier in Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ campaign,” Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies told The Daily Beast. “China’s financial system is still Pyongyang’s financial lifeline, even as the Kim regime finds itself increasingly isolated.”
To cut that lifeline, Washington will have to look at China in a whole different light.
“China’s banks are ultimately functions of China’s party-state with no genuine autonomy from Communist Party committees,” Brock University’s Charles Burton told The Daily Beast. “Therefore, blacklisting specific Chinese state enterprises or financial institutions for enabling the North Korean regime is largely of symbolic value. If the Chinese state is determined to launder money for North Korea or to flaunt international sanctions, Beijing can readily shift from one bank to another to achieve this end.”
Burton is right. AgBank and Construction Bank are not the only Big Four banks that Beijing has used. Bank of China, China’s fourth-largest banking institution, was named by a 2016 U.N. Panel of Experts report for devising and operating in Singapore a cash-cleaning service for the North Koreans.
Furthermore, Anthony Ruggiero of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former Treasury official stated that the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China’s and the world’s largest bank, appeared to be on the wrong side of the law. So all of China’s Big Four banks have been tied to money-laundering for Pyongyang.
In June 2016, the Obama administration designated the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea “a jurisdiction of ‘primary money laundering concern.’” With the four largest Chinese banks implicated in illicit activities, Trump now has no excuse—and every reason—to apply the same label to the People’s Republic of China.