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The news last week from the Korean Peninsula about yet another ballistic missile launch was déjà vu all over again. This one had an estimated range of 8,100 miles — long enough to hit Washington, D.C., or anywhere else in the continental United States. President Trump responded with angry tweets, but Kim Jong-un has good reason to be cocky.
The strongman knows all too well that a military response is highly unlikely. There are some 8,000 North Korean cannons and rocket launchers aimed at Seoul, in effect holding the approximately 10 million inhabitants of that city hostage. All sides realize that the human and economic costs of another Korean war are simply unfathomable.
Several American presidents have tried to persuade the Kim dynasty to abandon its nuclear ambitions, through a combination of sanctions and negotiations. But these efforts have been unsuccessful.
In part that’s because the Kim family never ran North Korea like a normal nation. Even in a rogue nation like Iran, the vise of economic embargoes can force hard-liners to change their behavior. Not so with North Korea, which has been able to skirt sanctions and United Nations resolutions because it is run more like a Mafia fief than a state.
The North’s criminal empire is vast and global. According to the Strategic Studies Institute, it includes narcotics trafficking and the counterfeiting of United States currency. North Korea has also been accused of the online hacking of bank accounts; the sale of nuclear know-how; black-market arms sales, including scud and other missiles to Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, Eritrea and other nations; and a whole military enterprise set up to steal crypto currencies.
This criminal syndicate is run out of North Korea’s mysterious Office 39, a bureau that, according to the Treasury Department, “provides critical support to North Korean leadership in part through engaging in illicit economic activities.” Every cog of the nation’s machinery is mobilized to facilitate the regime’s racketeering: Defectors have described schoolchildren working in poppy fields; they say cash and smuggled goods are brought in on state-owned merchant vessels; and diplomats peddle heroin. Crime is North Korea’s national industry.
As in any organized crime entity, the underbosses keep Mr. Kim’s regime afloat. Their loyalty has been bought and paid for with lavish wealth and privilege. So far, these crime bosses have been masterful at circumventing the sanctions that have primarily hurt the enslaved North Korean population.
That’s why the United States and its allies ought to take a page from an Israeli playbook and wage financial warfare against Mr. Kim and his cabal.
The notion behind using money as a weapon against terrorism belonged to Meir Dagan, a legendary soldier and spymaster who developed the idea in the nascent days of Israel’s fight against Hamas and terror groups supported by Yasir Arafat’s Palestinian Authority. Mr. Dagan rightly believed that money was the oxygen that fueled the groups’ suicide bombing campaign against Israel. If Israeli security services could suffocate the funds that paid for the bloodshed, the attacks would stop.
In 1996, Mr. Dagan created a task force code-named Harpoon that mobilized government agencies to focus on the money reaching terror cells from state sponsors and international charities. When Mr. Dagan became head of the Mossad, in 2002, Harpoon became an operational unit inside Israeli intelligence. His spies used the same aggressive action and imaginative chutzpah that had made the Mossad a storied force to follow those funds and to go after Mr. Arafat’s millions and the charities around the world that funneled cash into Hamas’s coffers.
Harpoon targeted the banks that held accounts belonging to Palestinian terrorist commanders, and the unit encouraged lawyers — including me — to launch suits in United States federal court seeking monetary damages for victims of state sponsors of terror so that countries like Syria, Iran and even North Korea would realize that the costs of blowing up buses outweighed the political ends the carnage hoped to achieve.
The combined espionage, military and legal offensive helped end the intifada by making it too expensive to continue.
The unit’s greatest success came several years after the intifada, during the Second Lebanon War, when Mr. Dagan urged the Israeli Air Force to destroy the banks where Hezbollah kept its cash. Although Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Lebanese terrorist group, received hundreds of millions of dollars a year from Tehran, it was a global criminal enterprise involved in everything from cocaine trafficking to stealing cars and money laundering. These activities funded its operations against Israel and against American forces in Iraq.
With the assistance of branches of the United States government, including the Department of Justice and the Treasury Department, Harpoon went after Hezbollah’s cocaine business in Venezuela and in Lebanon, as well as its money-laundering activities in West Africa and America. Brilliant operations and cons were carried out against Hezbollah’s captains — operations that ultimately stripped them of the vast fortunes they had assembled over the years. And when the Hezbollah hierarchy was cash strapped, Harpoon targeted the financial institutions that allowed the terrorists to move their cash across continents, ultimately shutting down the Lebanese Canadian Bank, one of the largest banks in the Middle East. It took the Syrian Civil War, and Hezbollah’s enormous military involvement on behalf of the Assad regime on Tehran’s tab, to provide the Party of God with a financial lifeline. But the fact remains that one of the results of Israel’s financial war against Hezbollah has been that Israel’s northern border has remained relatively quiet for more than 11 years.
Most military commanders acknowledge that there are very few, if any, feasible solutions to today’s standoff with Pyongyang. The only effective path is to unleash an offensive press against Kim’s inner circle.
The United States must take the lead by ramping up a covert campaign against the regime’s criminal enterprises. This effort ought to include a full-court press of dirty tricks, coercion, heavy-handed threats and even direct action, all covert and deniable, against Kim’s financial wizards who handle the finances, dispense the narcotics and hijack Bitcoins.
Such tradecraft must also be applied outside North Korea and Asia against the businesses and banks in Europe, South America and elsewhere that enable Kim’s criminal empire to flourish; bankers and businessmen are less likely to have the mettle to resist a late-night visit by men who could ruin their lives. And as North Korea is recognized as a state sponsor of terror, helping groups like Hezbollah with arms and expertise, a numbing slew of lawsuits should be filed seeking damages; those damages will result in the forfeiture of North Korean assets — open and hidden — around the world.
Sanctions alone will not work. They have done nothing to stop the missile tests and the saber rattling. Only when the money dries up will the loyalty of the men in Kim’s inner circle be compromised and cut away. The North Korean dictator will then be under enormous pressure to do whatever he can to alleviate the effects of the spies tapping into his cash and control. With full-scale war on the Korean Peninsula as the only other alternative, there isn’t much of a choice.