U.S. ready to move against Macau bank


WASHINGTON, AP

The Bush administration is taking steps that could enable the release of frozen North Korean assets held in a Macau bank, even as it cuts off the bank from the U.S. financial system because it allegedly laundered money for Pyongyang. The Treasury Department plans a news conference later Wednesday to announce the action against Banco Delta Asia, a government official said Wednesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the official announcement has not yet been made.

The 2001 USA Patriot Act gives the U.S. government the power to act. As a result, Banco Delta Asia will be cut off from the U.S. financial system. The Macau bank had already been put on a U.S. blacklist for what the department determined were lax money-laundering controls.

At the same time, the department is expected to provide guidance to help overseas regulators identify highest-risk and lower-risk account holders. This risk assessment in turn could be used by Macau, a semiautonomous province of China, to release money that has been frozen.

The bank holds US$24 million (euro18.2 million) in frozen North Korean assets.

The frozen accounts have been a major sore spot for the North Korean government and so angered Pyongyang that it had refused to participate in six-nation nuclear arms talks for more than a year. The North did return to disarmament talks in December. A deal was struck Feb. 13, in part because of an agreement to resolve the dispute over the frozen funds within 30 days.

The United States has spent 18 months investigating the bank.

The Associated Press has reported that US$8 million (euro6 million) to US$12 million (euro9.1 million) could be unfrozen by authorities in Macau, a semi-autonomous territory of China, following the department’s action. It could take weeks to release any money.

The U.S. government first took action against Banco Delta Asia in September 2005, calling it a “willing pawn for the North Korean government to engage in corrupt financial activities.”

At that time, the Treasury Department put the bank on the U.S. government’s money-laundering blacklist and also proposed cutting off the bank from the U.S. financial system.