HONG KONG — The state-controlled Bank of China said Tuesday that it had ended all dealings with a key North Korean bank in what appeared to be the strongest public Chinese response yet to North Korea’s willingness to brush aside warnings from Beijing and push ahead with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Chinese analysts said the Bank of China’s move carried clear diplomatic significance at a time when the Obama administration has been urging China to limit its longtime support for the North Korean government. The Bank of China’s action also dovetails with a longstanding US effort to target the North Korean government’s access to foreign currency. Most countries’ banks already refuse to have any financial dealings with North Korea, making the Bank of China’s role particularly important.
“I personally don’t believe that this would have been a business decision by the bank alone, and it’s probably a signal from the government to reflect its views on North Korea,” said Cai Jian, a professor and the deputy director of the Center for Korean Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai.
“This appears to be a step by the government to show that it’s willing to cooperate with the international community in strengthening sanctions or perhaps taking steps against illicit North Korean financial transactions,” he said.
And in another sign of international pressure on North Korea, the UN announced Tuesday that it had appointed a prominent Australian jurist to lead a panel tasked with investigating human rights abuses and possible crimes against humanity in North Korea “with a view to ensuring full accountability.”
Meanwhile, North Korea on Tuesday threatened the United States and South Korea over joint naval drills taking place this week in tense Yellow Sea waters ahead of a Washington summit by the allies’ leaders.
The warning, however, was softer than North Korea’s recent highly bellicose rhetoric, and followed the North’s removal of two missiles from a launch site where they had been readied for possible test firing, US officials said.
In the highly conditional threat, the section of the Korean People’s Army responsible for operations in North Korea’s southwest said it would hit back if any shells fall in its territory during the drills, which began Monday and are to end Friday. Should the allies respond to that, it said the North Korean military will strike five South Korean islands along the aquatic frontline between the countries.
Regarding the banking situation, Ruan Zongze, a former Chinese diplomat in Washington who is now a vice president of the China Institute of International Studies in Beijing, said the Chinese government was responding to a recent UN resolution imposing further sanctions on North Korea after its nuclear and ballistic missile tests and was not responding to US pressure. He noted that the Chinese government had recently encouraged state-controlled enterprises to follow the resolution in their dealings with North Korea.
Michael Kirby, a former Australian high court judge and legal reformer, will lead the human rights panel, a Commission of Inquiry, the UN Human Rights Council said in a statement released in Geneva. Its other members will be a Serbian human rights campaigner, Sonja Biserko, and Marzuki Darusman, who is already serving as a UN investigator monitoring North Korea.
Key issues for the panel include North Korea’s network of political prison camps, believed by human rights organizations to hold up to 200,000 people; the state’s manipulation of access to food as a tool of political repression; and enforced disappearances, including abductions of Japanese. All such abuses may constitute crimes against humanity, Darusman said in a report to the Human Rights Council in March.
In a single-sentence statement Tuesday afternoon, the Bank of China said it has “already issued a bank account closing notice to North Korea’s Foreign Trade Bank, and has ceased accepting funds transfer business related to this bank account.”
A spokeswoman for the bank declined to say whether money in the account would be frozen or returned to North Korea. The spokeswoman, who insisted that her name not be used in keeping with bank policy, said the account had been closed by the end of April.