North Korea-Tied Statue Builder May Expose Congo Bank to Sanctions

The Democratic Republic of Congo unit of Cameroon’s Afriland First Bank Group may be violating sanctions by providing banking services to a North Korea-linked statue-building company, a U.S.-based anti-corruption group said.

Congo Aconde Sarl, which holds accounts at Afriland, installed two statues in the Congolese city of Kamina in 2018, according to Washington, D.C.-based The Sentry. The installations may have violated United Nations sanctions against statue-building by North Korean companies, while Afriland may have breached U.S. sanctions by linking a company owned by North Korean individuals to the U.S. financial system by allowing it to trade in dollars, it said.

North Korea-Tied Statue Builder May Expose Congo Bank to Sanctions

North Korea has used statue-building companies as a way to curry favor with African nations, while also raising foreign exchange. Concerns that the money was funding the country’s weapons programs led the UN, U.S. and European Union to target the practice.

“Congo Aconde’s access to banking services is more than a simple lapse,” The Sentry said in a report published Wednesday. “Sanctions programs on North Korea focus heavily on disrupting access to the international financial system because of the danger that revenue generated overseas could ultimately be used to fund the country’s nuclear weapons program.”

Sanctioned Individuals

Congo Aconde didn’t respond to messages or phone calls to an email address and a phone number listed in their publicly available Congolese corporate records, which show the company was incorporated in Lubumbashi in February 2018 by two men born in Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital. Neither Afriland’s Congo unit nor its parent bank in Cameroon responded to multiple emails sent on Aug. 17, 18 and 19 seeking comment.

Afriland’s Congo unit has allowed other sanctioned individuals to use its banking services, including Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, Bloomberg News reported last month. Gertler’s lawyers said he has done nothing wrong and has not engaged in sanctions evasion.

Congo Aconde opened at least one dollar account at Afriland’s Congo unit, The Sentry said. The majority of international dollar transactions transit the U.S. financial system through a series of correspondent banks, meaning any dollar transactions involving Congo Aconde might run afoul of the American sanctions regime.

Nuclear Ambitions

U.S. sanctions against North Korea prohibit foreign financial institutions from engaging in most North Korea-related transactions that transit the U.S. financial system. Separate UN sanctions meant to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions explicitly forbid the country from supplying, selling or transferring statues and for other countries to procure these statues.

“When it comes to North Korea, UN and U.S. sanctions are so vast and so awesome in their nature -- awesome in the biblical sense, expansive,” said Joshua Shrager, a former U.S. Treasury official and senior vice president at Kharon, a research and data analytics firm that focuses on sanctions. “It’s rather open and shut; there’s not much gray area -- don’t facilitate transactions that involve North Korea. The prohibitions are so sweeping that it’s certainly an area that a U.S. bank would not want to touch.”

North Korea-Tied Statue Builder May Expose Congo Bank to Sanctions

While it’s unlikely, a bank like Afriland may also open itself up to secondary sanctions if it banks for North Korean nationals, Shrager said. More likely, it will make it harder to find correspondent banks that will process its U.S. dollar transactions because of the risk.

The Sentry, which was co-founded by U.S. movie star George Clooney and describes itself as an organization that investigates links between conflict and money in Africa, didn’t provide information on the cost of the Congo Aconde statues. One of the statues is of former President Joseph Kabila’s father, the late President Laurent-Desire Kabila. The second is of Ilunga Mbidi Kiluwe, a hero of the Luba and Lunda people of southeastern Congo, where the Kabila family is from.

The Congo Aconde statues are not the first to be installed by a North Korean company in Congo. Mansudae Overseas Project Group of Companies built a monument to Laurent-Desire Kabila in 2002, along with a statue of independence hero Patrice Lumumba in Kinshasa, the capital, according to UN experts. Mansudae was sanctioned by the U.S. government in 2016.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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