Vladivostok: the Promised Land for North Korean Sanctions Evaders?

Vladivostok! For those of us lucky enough to live in sunnier parts of the world it doesn’t sound like a dream destination. Maybe were biased here at Pyongyang Papers, but Vladivostok makes us think of dreary Russian icebreakers, cold wind and rusted fishing boats.

For North Koreans though, Vladivostok must be seen differently. Is it their land of plenty? Is it their paradise for earning money away from the sight of the international community? It must be. What else would explain the fact that so many North Koreans have moved to Vladivostok to set up their businesses.

We will come on to an interesting exclusive concerning a sanctioned company called China Silver Star. But firstly, why are there so many North Koreans in Vladivostok?

What we already know

Were not the only ones to have asked this question. NK News recently wrote a series of informative articles showing the North Korean presence in Vladivostok. While the numbers are difficult to confirm, Andrei Lankov from NK News suggests that between 15 and 20 North Korean companies have a permanent presence in the city. Lankov also suggests that there are around 10,000 North Korean laborers employed in the area, each earning between $500-900 per month to send back to the regime.

Obviously these North Korean laborers have to eat (and pay some taxes) but even at a low estimate of earnings this is something in the region of $50 million of revenue for the regime. That’s some decent income for buying more nuclear and ballistic missile parts. Al Jazeera’s 101 East recently published a documentary following the trail of North Korea’s secret money. North Korean workers are perceived as hard working, diligent and low-cost. Its no wonder they are popular with Russian employers. But then again, using slave labor has always been cheaper than paying people properly for doing a job.

NK News also reports how North Koreans have used the ports and airport to illegally move cash in defiance of international sanctions. In November 2018 a DPRK citizen was caught at Vladivostok airport trying to board an Air Koryo flight with with $192,300 in a shoe box. In October 2018, another DPRK citizen was caught with $180,000 – this time at the Pervomaisky customs post, having just got off from a cargo ship. While these two smugglers were caught by the authorities, these transfers are likely to be only the tip of the iceberg of illegal cash movements across the DPRK/Russia border.

Pyongyang Papers spoke to an employee at Vladivostok airport on condition of being anonymous who was able to confirm some of these stories. She said that security for DPRK flights was extremely loose and there did not seem to be much control of what came in or out on the regular Air Koryo flights: “you often see the North Koreans returning to their country loading their own bags onto the luggage conveyors or pushing through and around the security barriers” she said. That’s not ideal behavior when the rest of the world is trying hard to prevent the DPRK regime from earning foreign currency for the missile program or from buying luxury goods for the rich elites.

It seems that Russian enforcement of UN sanctions against DPRK commercial activity in Vladivostok has been a bit relaxed, to say the least. Or, as an article on the Arms Control Wonk blog puts it – it “leaves much to be desired”.

There seem to be systematic abuses going on. Alongside the large movement of money and the large scale employment of North Korean slave laborers, there as also several companies located in and working out of the DPRK embassy in Vladivostok. The same Arms Control Wonk article highlights at least three companies that are located in the embassy. If confirmed, this would be in clear violation of both UNSCR 2375 (2017) and UNSCR 2321 (2016), which bars DPRK diplomats from engaging in business.

So what else is going on in Vladivostok that hasn’t been noticed yet? Probably quite a lot! And this takes us back to China Silver Star.

From PP’s own conversations with Vladivostok locals we do have one new piece of information to add to the growing pile. This relates to a certain individual called Jong Song Hwa. Jong has been spotted a few times at the airport in Vladivostok and, according to our source, seems to have made himself quite at home in the city in recent months.

Why should we care?

Well, Jong is the CEO of an IT company called China Silver Star, aka the Yanbian Silverstar Network Technology Co. Ltd. China Silver Star reportedly earned millions in collaborative IT projects in China using North Korean workers, often disguising their true nationality from project partners. The common image of North Korean laborers hauling brick on a building site for low pay is still true, but these days they are just as likely to be sat behind a keyboard, advertising their IT services under false names and nationality on freelance sites like Upwork.

As a result of this activity, Silver Star was sanctioned by the US Treasury in September 2018 for “generating revenue for the Government of North Korea … that contributes to North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs”. Jong Song Hwa, as the CEO, was sanctioned and named in the OFAC listing alongside his company.

Clearly business must have become a bit tough for Jong in China following the OFAC sanctions so hes moved to Vladivostok. Maybe hes there to see some rusted fishing boats on a well-earned holiday? It doesn’t seem likely! Silver Star already has a sister company office on Ulitsa Klary Tsetskin in Vladivostok, known as “Volasys Silver Star“. Isn’t that convenient for Jong? It looks like hes decided to take his team of sanctioned IT workers with him from China to Russia and to begin his work again – motivated by the fresh sea air and bracing Russian climate.

As its probably the only place to get a snack near the Volasys Silver Star office we wouldn’t be surprised if Jong hangs out at the Pit Stop cafe by Klary Tsetskin (not sure who burned down the nearby pool hall). If you are stopping at the Pit Stop for a drink, keep an eye out for any Volasys Silver Star staff, and give them a friendly wave from all of us here at Pyongyang Papers.

    Tags: DPRK, North Korea, Russia, sanctions, Vladivostok