BANGKOK, Thailand -- When U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Glyn T. Davies
recently asked Bangkok's coup-installed military government to support
international sanctions against North Korea, he reflected concerns by
analysts that Pyongyang could build nuclear and other weapons with
dual-use imports and profits from exports.
   "As a leader of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations),
Thailand has an important role to play in the broad effort to signal
to North Korea it will be isolated if it does not suspend its weapons
programs and return to talks on the basis of a verifiable commitment
to denuclearize," Mr. Davies said.
   "Cutting off the financial lifelines that enable North Korea's
proscribed programs," is vital, the ambassador said.
   When asked what, if any, businesses in Thailand enable Pyongyang's
prohibited programs, U.S. Embassy Spokeswoman Melissa Sweeney replied:
 "The ambassador's op-ed speaks for itself."
   The envoy's 827-word statement was published on the Bangkok Post's
opinion page on May 22, the third anniversary of the coup when
Thailand's U.S.-trained military toppled an elected government.
   The ambassador's statement supports efforts by President Donald
Trump and the U.N. to tighten sanctions against Pyongyang.
   During the weeks after Mr. Davies' statement, Thai officials and
local media made no mention of the envoy's message, and instead
focused on Thailand's lack of freedom during the past three years
under military rule.
   Thailand's foreign ministry did not respond to repeated e-mailed
questions about the ambassador's statement.
   There are no confirmed public reports that any deals by Thais
violate sanctions.
   Bangkok has offered to play a "neutral" role "mediating" talks by
the international community with Pyongyang.
   Thailand and North Korea "have fairly robust, unreported trade
ties," George McLeod, a Thailand-based political risk consultant, said
in an interview.
   "These links have developed in part because the North Korean
government has become concerned about its over-reliance on [China's]
goods, and has sought to tap other feeder markets," Mr. McLeod said.
   "From Thailand’s perspective, the main concern is to avoid
reputational damage from having the ‘Made in Thailand’ label attached
to goods appearing in North Korea.
   "To avoid this, goods from Thailand are exported to two border
towns" in China along the Chinese-North Korean frontier.
   "They are then re-labeled as Chinese goods and exported by truck to
North Korea. As far as I know, this trade is not carried out under
Thai government auspices. It is done by individual businessmen.
   "In mid-2016, I met with a South Korean businessman who was
exporting (edible) chicken feet from Thailand to Dandong, and over the
border," Mr. McLeod said.
   Dandong, a thriving Chinese port on the Yalu River separating the
two countries, is North Korea's gateway for foreign business and
   "What I know is from businessmen that travel between Thailand,
North Korea and China arranging these types of deals. The ones I am
aware of are consumer goods.
   "There are absolutely no statistics on this trade because it is
hidden underneath Thai exports to China," he said.
   "I have never heard of financial -- i.e. bank -- relationships"
between Bangkok and Pyongyang, Mr. McLeod said.
   "While North Korean illicit shipments -- such as military equipment
and counterfeit banknotes -- were repeatedly intercepted by Thai
authorities, so far Thailand has not been regarded as a major source
of Weapons of Mass Destruction-related North Korean imports," said
Balazs Szalontai in an interview.
    Mr. Szalontai, based in Seoul, South Korea, is an associate
professor in Korea University's North Korean Studies Department and
editorial board member of the North Korean Review journal.
   "The list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN), which is
periodically updated by the U.S. Treasury, has not implied a strong
link between the two countries," Mr. Szalontai said.
  Thai businesses did $53 million in trade with North Korea in 2016,
making it Pyongyang's fourth largest partner, Bloomberg news reported.
   China was Pyongyang's biggest trader in 2016 with $6.1 billion in
deals, it said.
   India followed with $145 million, the Philippines had $89 million,
and Russia's trade was $84 million.
   During previous years "North Korea’s recorded imports from Thailand
have been traditionally dominated by rice, rubber, wood, metals
including stainless steel, minerals, chemicals, plastics, electronic
circuits, and computer parts," Mr. Szalontai said.
   "Stainless steel and electronic circuits were potentially or
actually within the range of the U.N. sanctions imposed on North
Korean imports, as they can be of dual use -- i.e., potentially useful
for North Korea’s missile programs," he said.
   It was unclear what items Thais sold to North Koreans during 2016
and 2017, or how recently Thais exported stainless steel and
electronic circuits, or if those items violated the newest sanctions.
    "North Korean trade enterprises active in Thailand habitually
preferred to operate in a non-transparent or semi-transparent way to
evade inspections and sanctions, not the least because they often
functioned as front organizations for illicit economic activities,"
Mr. Szalontai said.
   North Korea previously exported to Thailand gold, iron, steel,
electrical machinery, chemicals, and seafood.
   North Korea's Internet connections rely on a joint venture with a
subsidiary of Loxley, a family-owned Thai telecommunications company
which has publicly operated in North Korea for more than a decade and
built their first mobile phone network.
    International sanctions forbid trading weapons, ammunition,
nuclear items, some metals and bank transactions, plus a ban on North
Korean-flagged flights, global travel by some North Korean people, and
exporting luxury goods and other specific items to Pyongyang.
   Other deals, such as importing and exporting some commodities, are
occasionally allowed.
   Pyongyang also operates restaurants in Thailand, Malaysia, Laos,
Cambodia, Nepal and across China, plus the Middle East and Africa.
   "Most of the money earned goes to the regime," Jim Kelman, a
retired U.S. State Department officer who was based in South Korea,
Thailand and elsewhere in Asia, said in an interview in 2016.
   "The restaurants can, and likely are, being used to launder illegal
or counterfeit funds in [some of] the countries in which they operate.
This is an ongoing concern of the U.S. and the international
community," said Mr. Kelman who is now a program officer at
Washington-based Meridian International Center which is described as a
private non-profit agency involved in global leadership and cultural
   "With the advent of stronger international financial sanctions,
there are fewer ways that North Korea can earn hard currency," Mr.
Kelman said.
   North Korea's largest embassy in Southeast Asia is located in
Bangkok, as is South Korea's.
   Thailand is a non-NATO treaty ally of the U.S.
   Last month, Mr. Trump boosted Thailand's coup leader Prayuth
Chan-ocha, who is now prime minister, by inviting him to the White
House at a future, unspecified date.
   In 2015, North Korea's then-Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong visited
Bangkok and asked Thailand to invest.
   "They are not open to inviting just any country, but they are keen
on inviting us," Thailand's then-Foreign Minister Tanasak
Patimapragorn said at the time.
   They discussed Pyongyang's interest in "food security, agriculture
and public health, ICT (information and communication technology) and
tourism," Mr. Tanasak said.
   "Thailand's unusual position as a top trading partner of North
Korea gives it a potentially large role in helping carrying out
sanctions," the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok said in a 2006 cable,
according to the anti-secrecy website WikiLeaks.
   Titled, "Thailand's Trade With North Korea: Doing Business With the
Hermit Kingdom," the cable said trade was "relatively insignificant
for the Thais... but unusual behavior by North Korean companies in
Thailand raises some suspicions as to what other activities they
[North Koreans] may be up to."
   The American "Embassy also speculates that North Korean businesses
may be passing themselves off as generic 'Koreans' to avoid
controversy," it said.
   "Deception appears to be standard practice for North Korean
companies located in Bangkok," including addresses that are "mail
drops and not the
actual location."
   Incorrect phone numbers on invoices, suspicious financial
statements and possible bribery also made it difficult for the U.S.
Embassy to track deals between Thai businesses and Pyongyang.
   "North Korea's trade relationship with Thailand is shrouded in a
veil of mystery," the cable said.