Authorities in North Korea are engaging in a new round of changing the composition and names of state-run commercial enterprises to circumvent new sanctions imposed by the United Nations earlier this year as punishment for missile launches and nuclear tests, sources inside the country said.
Since July, authorities have been dividing up state-run trade organizations cited on international sanctions blacklists, giving them new names, and putting them under the nominal ownership of individuals, they said.
Trade enterprises that engage in business activities abroad and generate much-needed foreign currency for the isolated regime are being broken down into smaller firms, a source in the country’s capital Pyongyang said, citing an executive officer at a trade group as the source.
“The main reason the state has decided to enforce the system is to avoid sanctions against it,” the source, who requested anonymity, told RFA’s Korean Service.
Large trading firms, such as the Daeheung General Bureau, Geumgang General Bureau, and Kyonghung Guidance Bureau under Office No. 39 of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, have been divided into small “private” companies, he said.
The U.S. Treasury Department has described Office No. 39, which is believed to be under the direct control of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, as “a secretive branch of the government … that provides critical support to [the] North Korean leadership in part through engaging in illicit economic activities and managing slush funds and generating revenues for the leadership.”
In a statement issued in November 2010, the U.S. government cited Korea Daesong Bank and Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation as “key components of Office 39’s financial network supporting North Korea's illicit and dangerous activities."
Daesong General Bureau’s crude steel firm, for instance, has been split into many private companies, he said. But the companies that operate in China’s special administrative region Macau, where the bureau’s crude steel company is located, continues to do business in the name of the parent firm, the source said.
The Kyonghung Guidance Bureau has a business partner in Guangzhou, a sprawling Chinese port city northwest of Hong Kong on the Pearl River, and runs a port-themed restaurant and store to generate foreign currency for the North Korean government, he said.
The organization also operates the Daedonggang Store and Kyonghung Store in Pyongyang that mainly carry products imported from China, North Korea’s most important trade partner, he said.
“I wonder how they will conduct business if they are split into ‘private’ companies,” the source said.
Another source in Pyongyang called the move by state-run trade enterprises to transform themselves into small private firms “sneaky.”
“It is their sneaky plan to avoid strict sanctions against North Korea by disguising state organizations as private firms,” he told RFA.
He said the firms have been trading products with China, Thailand, Malaysia, and other countries under the auspices of state-run organizations in the name of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the formal name of North Korea.
“This has been an important element for their credibility, but using the name of the country has also led them to experience negative consequences while North Korea sanctions are in place against them,” said the source, who declined to be named.
If the state-run organizations violate international sanctions against North Korea, they are not allowed to do business with their partner companies in other countries, he said.
“So, disguising the organizations by turning them into private firms will help them avoid the sanctions,” the source said.
Same old tricks
North Korea has resorted to such tactics in the past by disguising the regime’s commercial activities abroad to lessen the blow of international sanctions imposed in response to nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013.
The European Union has said that Office 39 is “among the most important organizations assigned with currency and merchandise acquisition” and “engages in illicit economic activity to support the North Korean government” such as the production, smuggling, and distribution of narcotics.
The EU said the office also oversees several trading companies, some of which are active in illicit activities, including the Daesong General Bureau, which is part of Daesong group, the country’s largest company group.
Previous sanctions imposed on the country’s individuals, entities, and firms by the U.S. and the EU have included an arms embargo to try to stop the regime from obtaining weapons and nuclear technology, a freeze on North Korean assets and economic resources held abroad, and a ban on luxury goods sought by senior regime figures.
On Aug. 5, the U.N. adopted a resolution with the most severe sanctions to date against the autocratic regime in response to two tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles in July, which appeared capable of reaching the U.S. mainland.
The U.N. resolution, which bans all exports of North Korean coal, iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore, and seafood, could cut the country’s annual export revenue by a third, reducing it to U.S. $1 billion.
It also imposes new restrictions on North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, forbids the country from increasing the numbers of workers it sends abroad to earn money for Pyongyang, and bans the formation of new joint ventures with the regime and new investment in current joint ventures.
For the past 12 years, North Korea has repeatedly defied U.N. Security Council resolutions over its nuclear militarization and missile development, which North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has called a response to military threats by the U.S. and the country’s arch-enemy South Korea.
Reported by Jieun Kim for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.