The man who spent most of his career serving a clandestine division of the North Korean government tasked with managing the country’s legal and illegal economic activities overseas revealed in a recent interview why sanctions have failed to stop Pyongyang from developing deadly weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them to distant targets.
Ri Jong Ho is a defector who previously spent more than thirty years funneling millions of dollars into North Korea despite international sanctions. He served as an official in the secretive Office 39, which was created to manage the finances of the ruling Workers’ Party, generate foreign currency, and oversee the country’s production and trade. He stressed that sanctions have failed because there have always been ways to get around them.
“We were never in pain or hurting in our trade business because of the sanctions,” Ri explained to The Washington Post. “I used to be sanctioned, as a North Korean who led trade at the front line, but I never felt any pain from the sanctions. The sanctions were perfunctory.”
He explained that his counterparts in China never faced any serious challenges either. Looking for profit, they were largely unfazed by sanctions. “When the Chinese government orders them to stop,” Ri said, “they stop for a few days and then start up again.”
Furthermore, when specific companies are targeted, firms change their names and continue their operations.
“North Korea is a 100 percent state enterprise, so these companies just change their names the day after they’re sanctioned,” Ri explained, “That way the company continues, but with a different name than the one on the sanctions list.” But, of course, there are other ways around sanctions.
He told reporters that he could send millions of dollars into North Korea by passing off bags of money to ship captains sailing out of China headed for North Korean ports. In 2014, he managed to move about ten million dollars into Pyongyang via this simple method.
Irregular implementation of international sanctions by China, North Korea’s largest benefactor, and other countries has limited the impact of sanctions. Ri told reporters that the U.S. will need to have North Korea’s main supporters, China and Russia, on board if it intends to bring the pain to North Korea. “Unless China, Russia and the United States cooperate fully to sanction North Korea, it will be impossible to hurt them.”
Ri and his family fled North Korea in late 2014 as unfailing loyalty shifted to terror. After Kim Jong-un denounced his uncle, he began purging officials and their families. He reportedly executed hundreds of people by machine gun fire and sent countless others to prison camps.
Ri now lives in Virginia, where his knowledge of North Korea’s vast overseas trade networks could give the U.S. and its allies an advantage as they move to pressure Pyongyang. For instance, Ri could identify the key pillars of that system, which a recent Center for Defense Analysis report concluded is centralized, limited, and vulnerable.
A cornerstone of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure and engagement” strategy is tougher sanctions, although the U.S. has yet to pressure the North Korean regime in a way that decidedly differs from that of the current administration’s predecessors.