More hurdles to the return of Macau funds

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2007, 12:00am

Practical difficulties continue to hinder the release of frozen North Korea-linked funds in Macau - despite announcements by authorities there and by US officials that the cash would be freed.

Banking and diplomatic sources said there were problems with identifying and verifying who controlled at least 10 of the 50 accounts frozen at Banco Delta Asia under US Treasury Department pressure in September 2005.

Most of the accounts were opened by North Koreans once based in Macau who have since left - some because of the US squeeze on North Korean activities there. At least one of the account holders has died.

Banking analysts said it remained unclear which banks would accept the US$25 million in the Banco Delta Asia accounts, despite days of talks involving the US, North Korea and China.

'No-one is going to just turn up in Macau with a suitcase and fill it with cash. We need somewhere to send it to,' said one. 'It will be important to be able to legally re-deposit the money to make certain North Korea can still have access to international banks.

'The announcements have put the ball back in Macau's court ... it has got to sort this out, and fast. We are still all in the dark.'

A well-placed diplomatic source said the issue could take days, if not weeks, to sort out - despite North Korea demanding the money before progress on the nuclear issues.

Banco Delta Asia has handled much of North Korea's international banking activity since the mid-1970s. Much of the money was initially deposited in cash after being carried out of North Korea, which still has no electronic facilities to move funds across its borders. Some was wired to Macau from third countries.

The US Treasury described the bank as a 'willing pawn' in three decades of state-sponsored crime by Pyongyang, including drug trafficking and counterfeiting. The US also forced the closure of North Korean accounts at other banks in the region.

North Korea is not keen to accept the money in cash because it hopes to force access to the international banking system.

No money has been released. Macau Monetary Authority officials referred only to Tuesday's statement that 'it expects all parties concerned to come up with appropriate and responsible arrangements'.

The representative of the biggest account holder, a foreign-owned North Korean bank, said from London he was awaiting a sign that the impasse had been resolved.

'I cannot say anything because I have not heard anything,' said Colin McAskill, whose Daedong Credit Bank has US$7 million locked up.