The Global Web That Keeps North Korea Running

By Jonathan Cheng in Seoul, Jeremy Page in Beijing and Alastair Gale in Tokyo Features Dow Jones Newswires

How North Korea does business

North Korea has one of the world's least open economies. How does it operate and who are its business partners? Here's what we know

North Korea may be one of the world's most isolated countries, but the tightening sanctions regime it has lived under for the past two decades is anything but impermeable.

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An examination of North Korea's global connections reveals that even as it becomes increasingly dependent on China, Pyongyang maintains economic and diplomatic ties with many nations. Those links -- from commercial and banking relationships to scientific training, arms sales, monument-building and restaurants -- have helped it amass the money and technical know-how to develop nuclear weapons and missiles.

The nature and extent of North Korea's global ties comes from current and formal officials, researchers, North Korean defectors, U.N. decisions, NGO's and an analysis of economic statistics.

In some cases, North Korea leans on old allies, particularly those like Cuba from the former Communist bloc, or those like Syria that are similarly hostile to the U.S. In others, notably in Africa, it has more transactional relationships to supply items such as cheap weaponry or military training. In the Middle East, it supplies laborers for construction work and pockets almost all their earnings.

Sanctions against North Korea haven't been as broad as those applied to Iran over its nuclear program, nor as rigidly enforced.

David S. Cohen, undersecretary of the Treasury for terrorism and financial intelligence during the Obama administration, wrote in an op-ed in April that "North Korea has gotten off relatively easy, especially as compared with Iran."

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Trying to crack down on North Korean business activities is like a game of Whac-A-Mole. North Korean defectors have detailed how the regime uses front companies to conceal its commercial activities in foreign countries, or adopts business names that obscure their identity by avoiding using North Korea's full name, thereby benefiting from confusion over whether the entity is North or South Korean.

Pyongyang maintains diplomatic ties with 164 countries and has embassies in 47, according to the National Committee on North Korea, a Washington-based nongovernmental organization, and the Honolulu-based East-West Center.

Although it lags far behind China, India has been North Korea's second biggest trade partner in the past couple of years, buying commodities including silver and selling it chemicals among other goods. Russia has exported petroleum products to North Korea and imported items such as garments and frozen fish. Last year, North Korea attempted to export military communications equipment to Eritrea via front companies in Malaysia, according to a recent U.N. report.

Most North Koreans abroad are involved in providing funds for the state, defectors say. One of the primary roles of North Korean diplomats is to help develop and maintain cash flows for the regime, according to former embassy officials. North Korea missions typically have to be self-financed to maximize revenue for the state, these people say.

In recent months, under pressure from the Trump administration, there are signs more countries have begun to clamp down on North Korea. In February, Bulgaria had Pyongyang send home two diplomats in its embassy in Sofia, in line with U.N. Security Council resolutions passed in September calling on countries to reduce the number of North Korean diplomats abroad.

Italy this year moved four North Koreans studying at the International Center for Theoretical Physics in Trieste to switch to less-sensitive majors in line with a Security Council resolution calling for member nations not to provide education that could aid Pyongyang's weapons program.

In March, Senegal said it suspended issuing visas for artisans from North Korea's Mansudae Art Studio, a state-run organization that has erected monumental sculptures across Africa.

More than 50,000 North Korean workers are employed abroad, according to the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, a Seoul-based think tank, many in construction or factory jobs. For these workers, wages are paid directly to North Korean officials, raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year for the state, human-rights groups say.

These ties are under scrutiny as Pyongyang's success at launching a missile that could reach Alaska is escalating the crisis over its weapons program. This week's missile test took place on the back of a Chinese truck imported to North Korea for logging purposes, according to analysts.

U.N. sanctions are primarily intended to block North Korea's illegitimate trade and revenue streams that have a suspected link to its weapons programs. The U.N. doesn't target all of Pyongyang's business activities abroad, such as the chain of restaurants it operates in Asia and the Middle East, or its dispatch of laborers.

U.S. sanctions go further in trying to disrupt North Korea's trade and revenue, including a recent move to block access to the U.S. financial system for a bank in China on which Pyongyang relied. The U.S. has sanctioned North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a move that would freeze any of his assets in America.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday called on the global community to stop doing business with Pyongyang.

This week, Sen. Cory Gardner (R., Colo.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's subpanel on East Asia, said he was drafting legislation that he says would create a "global embargo" on North Korea.

"We need to shut off North Korea's access to oil, to trade, to currency, to financial institutions," he said in an interview Thursday, calling for "Iran-style" sanctions. "They are far from being 'sanctioned out.' They are certainly isolated, but they have to recognize they ain't seen nothing yet."

China has had close ties to North Korea since the 1950s when it sent troops to fight U.S.-led forces backing the South in the Korean War.

In 2001, China accounted for around 18% of North Korea's exports and 20% of its imports, ranking behind Japan on both measures, according to customs figures compiled by Harvard University's Atlas of Economic Complexity.

Since U.N. sanctions on North Korea were tightened in 2009, Japan and other countries have curtailed commercial ties with Pyongyang, leaving China as by far its biggest trade partner.

For the past five years, China has accounted for more than 80% of North Korea's imports and exports, providing an economic lifeline even as political relations between Beijing and Pyongyang have deteriorated.

During that period, China has imported mostly industrial raw materials from North Korea, especially coal, but also seafood and clothing such as men's suits and overcoats.

In recent days, President Donald Trump has expressed frustration with China for expanding trade with North Korea despite U.S. appeals to exert more pressure.

China says it enforces U.N. sanctions and since February it has banned imports of North Korean coal -- one of Pyongyang's main sources of hard currency.

However, U.N. sanctions still allow trade that isn't deemed to benefit North Korea's nuclear and missile programs, and China's customs figures show that its exports to North Korea have increased this year. Crucially, China continues to be North Korea's biggest source of crude oil, according to diplomats and experts on the region.

Much of North Korea's trade takes place over the 880-mile land border with China, which is porous and sparsely guarded. Small Chinese and North Korean companies quietly ferry coal, iron ore and other resources over the border, far from checkpoints.

U.N. sanctions introduced in March 2016 banned exports of North Korean iron ore unless they were exclusively for "livelihood purposes" -- a loophole China continues to exploit.

While North Korea gained notoriety in the early 2000s for state-backed exports of illegal drugs and counterfeit U.S. dollars, Pyongyang has mostly shifted its strategy to allow private North Korean enterprises to take the lead, with the regime collecting bribes from these enterprises in a primitive system of taxation, says Justin Hastings, a lecturer at the University of Sydney who has researched North Korea's overseas smuggling networks.

The shift in strategy means that North Korea can outsource some of the risk involved in the trade while continuing to fill its coffers.

"North Korea is not infinitely adaptable, but it's far more adaptable than people have thought and its ability to adapt to sanctions has not been reached yet," Mr. Hastings said.

One informal Chinese trader that Mr. Hastings interviewed for a soon-to-be-published academic paper was importing truckloads and boatloads of North Korean iron ore and other minerals across the river into China for resale as recently as a year ago, when the interview took place.

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 06, 2017 12:43 ET (16:43 GMT)