The U.N. Security Council’s new restrictions could further bite into North Korea’s meager economy after what Kim Jong Un’s authoritarian government says was a hydrogen bomb test Sept. 3. The world body on Monday banned North Korean textile exports, an important source of hard currency, and capped its imports of crude oil.
The measures fell short of Washington’s goals: a potentially crippling ban on oil imports and freezing the international assets of Kim and his government. “We think it’s just another very small step – not a big deal,” Trump said as he met with Malaysia’s prime minister at the White House. “But those sanctions are nothing compared to what ultimately will have to happen.” He did not elaborate.
Despite its limited economic impact, the new sanctions succeed in adding further pressure on Pyongyang without alienating Moscow and Beijing. The U.S. needs the support of both of its geopolitical rivals for its current strategy of using economic pressure and diplomacy — and not military options — for getting North Korea to halt its testing of nuclear bombs and the missiles for delivering them.
Trump said it was “nice” to get a 15-0 vote at the U.N. But underscoring the big questions about Chinese and Russian compliance, senior U.S. officials told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that effective enforcement by both of the North’s neighbors and trading partners will be the acid test of whether sanctions work.
The U.N. has adopted multiple resolutions against North Korea since its first nuclear test explosion in 2006, banning it from arms trading and curbing exports of commodities it heavily relies on for revenue. That has have failed to stop its progress toward developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could soon range the American mainland.
Briefing the U.S. lawmakers, Treasury Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing Marshall Billingslea displayed satellite photos to demonstrate North Korea’s deceptive shipping practices. He focused in particular on how it masks exports of coal that were banned in August after the North tested two intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In one example, a North Korean ship registered in St. Kitts and Nevis was said to have sailed from China to North Korea, turning off its transponder to conceal its location as it loaded coal. The ship then docked in Vladivostok, Russia, before finally going to China to presumably unload its cargo.
China accounts for 90 percent of North Korea’s external trade. “The success of the pressure strategy will depend on cooperation from international partners, especially Beijing,” said Susan Thornton, America’s top diplomat for East Asia. “We have also made clear that if China and Russia do not act, we will use the tools we have at our disposal.”
Those tools include more sanctions. In June, the U.S. designated the Bank of Dandong, a regional Chinese bank, as a “primary money laundering concern” over its alleged help to North Korea in accessing the U.S. and international financial systems.
Billingsea described the action as “a very clear warning shot that the Chinese understood.” He said North Korean bank representatives still operate in Russia in “flagrant disregard” of U.N. resolutions that Moscow voted for. This summer, the U.S. targeted two Russian companies with penalties for supporting North Korean missile procurement.
Lawmakers who spoke Tuesday supported the U.S. pressure tactics, while voicing skepticism that North Korea could be forced into abandon nuclear weapons it regards as a guarantee of survival for the Kim dynasty.
Republican Rep. Ed Royce, the committee chairman, said U.S. and allied efforts should be “super-charged.” Describing the North’s access to hard currency as its “Achilles heel,” he urged the administration to target more entities dealing with North Korea, particularly Chinese banks. He singled out the China Merchants Bank and the Agricultural Bank of China.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the committee’s top-ranking Democrat, also supported the pressure campaign. But he criticized Trump’s commentary on the North Korean crisis, which he said was making matters worse. Playing on Trump’s “fire and fury” threat of a month ago, Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly said Trump’s policy looks more like “fecklessness and failure.”
Connolly protested that Trump had branded South Korea’s leader, a supporter of diplomacy with North Korea, as an appeaser. The State Department’s Thornton said Seoul had “come around very nicely” and appeasement not South Korea’s policy.