The emergence of a Russian bank as a possible solution to the quagmire over the North Korean-linked funds in Macau's Banco Delta Asia is an intriguing development.
Just when it seemed the situation could hardly get any more fraught, the Moscow connection introduces a host of interests - and potential pressures - into the equation.
Until now, China, the US and North Korea had dominated backroom negotiations with Banco Delta. The issue has been how to satisfactorily return the previously frozen US$25 million so the far more important issue of ending Pyongyang's nuclear programme could move ahead. Russia stayed happily in the background.
Despite long relations with North Korea, mainland banks did not want to become involved and Beijing insisted that it could not force them anymore, given modern market reforms. With the US Treasury Department having earlier warned mainland banks against continuing to deal with North Korea, US negotiators had few levers to pull. Pyongyang, which initially wanted the money returned through old accounts at the Bank of China, also had few cards to play.
Apparently tired of using the Banco Delta money - frozen in an earlier Treasury crackdown - as a bargaining chip, the US side announced last month that the money had been defrosted and was free for North Korea to deal with. One White House official even declared the issue 'resolved'.
North Korea has had other ideas. Still wounded by the Treasury crackdown, it wants the money to move through the international banking system to secure its future commercial needs. There would be no movement on de-nuclearisation until the funds had moved to its satisfaction.
With bankers across the region saying they see Banco Delta as 'radioactive', Pyongyang's only option would be to send agents with strongboxes and collect it in cash. They may have once been used to dealing with Macau banks in such a fashion, but not any longer. 'The money must move bank-to-bank,' said one diplomatic source close to North Korean's position. 'That is North Korea's view ... it wants to make sure that its normal trade and commerce can still take place through the banking system.'
Now it has brought Moscow into the deal, saying it wants half the money moved to banks in Russia and Italy. Some Macau reports suggest the transaction could take place this weekend but diplomatic sources are warning of hiccups.
Russia, of course, is among the six nations involved in the six-party talks that led to February's agreement for North Korea to de-nuclearise in return for aid and diplomatic progress, reflecting its land border in the Russian far east and lingering Soviet-era ties.
Perhaps fearing outside pressure, North Korea has not named the banks publicly, or outlined which institutions will serve as correspondents.
Russia, along with China, remains a key trade partner for North Korea. It has been pursuing a strategic economic relationship once the nuclear issue is solved and, like Beijing, Moscow has an interest in a stable North Korea.
It is looking to sell more oil to North Korea and have natural resources, including uranium, moving in the other direction. Giant export monopoly Gazprom has started talking to Pyongyang about rebuilding an oil refinery and a pipeline through the country that would allow it to sell gas to South Korea and beyond. Then there is an estimated US$8.7 billion in Soviet-era debt that needs tidying up.
'Russia may be making a decisive strategic move by allowing itself to be used by North Korea on the banking issue,' said one source close to the situation. 'It would also serve North Korea's interests in the short term ... Russian banks may be some of the last willing to hold their noses in dealing with North Korean trading firms. It is still an information black hole.'
North Korea – United States Relations