Trump Turns the Screws on North Korea

What will new U.S. sanctions achieve?

President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in smile
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

President Trump, days after threatening to “totally destroy North Korea” if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies, announced fresh U.S. sanctions on Pyongyang, targeting individuals, companies, financial institutions that finance and facilitate trade with North Korea.”

“North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile development is a grave threat to peace and security in our world, and it is unacceptable that others financially support this criminal, rogue regime,” Trump said.

He said the new executive order will cut off sources of revenue that fund North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and enhance the Treasury Department’s authority to target individuals or entities that conduct significant trade in goods, services, or technology with North Korea.

The steps add to the strong actions undertaken by the Trump administration in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile tests. Separately, Reuters reported, citing unnamed sources, that China’s central bank instructed its financial institutions to stop doing business with North Korea, a move that could have devastating financial consequences for Pyongyang. It’s unclear if the moves were coordinated in advance, but China has grown increasingly tired of its client state’s actions, and the Trump administration has urged it to do more to rein in Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader.

The twin actions were praised by experts on the region. Christopher Hill, the veteran diplomat who represented the U.S. at the six-party talks on North Korea during the Bush administration, tweeted:

The steps announced Thursday almost certainly will raise tensions with Pyongyang, which this year has conducted 19 missile tests and one nuclear test. (North Korea conducted 26 missile tests in all of 2016.) The regularity of North Korea’s tests indicate two things: that it’s likely making its own missiles, and that it’s drawing ever closer to its stated goal of being able to target the U.S. with a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile. The country already is believed to possess 60 nuclear weapons, and while the U.S. and others insist that North Korea must renounce its nuclear weapons, Pyongyang has shown little indication it will.

North Korea’s neighbors have reacted in alarm at its actions. The U.S. has stepped up the pressure with sanctions, including the measures the president announced Thursday. The U.S. has also spearheaded sanctions efforts at the UN, working with China and Russia, both veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council, to approve two rounds of sanctions on the North, including one earlier this month in response to the North’s latest nuclear test.

The most recent UN sanctions, among other things, capped North Korea’s oil imports, banned textile exports, and ended additional overseas laborer contracts with North Koreans. But as I noted at the time, the U.S. had to drop its more stringent demands, including an oil embargo on North Korea, a financial and travel ban on Kim, and the ability to inspect any ships suspected of carrying illicit goods to or from North Korea. Those concessions were made to bring China and Russia onboard for the sanctions resolution. Both countries have signaled their irritation at North Korea’s recent actions, but are loath to see it destabilized, and remain an important factor for any future UN-backed action against the North.

The UN sanctions that passed earlier this month followed UN sanctions in August in response to two tests by North Korea in July of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the contiguous United States. Those sanctions were expected to cost North Korea $1 billion, a third of its export revenue, each year. North Korea is now under separate U.S. sanctions and several rounds of UN sanctions—but until now there has been little to suggest that it will change its behavior. The country has a long and successful history of sanctions evasion; sanctions make the regime more defiant; and they don’t deter the North from carrying out further missile and nuclear tests. But speaking at the UN on Wednesday, Rex Tillerson, the U.S. secretary of state, said there were some “indications” the sanctions were being felt. He said “there are beginning to appear evidence of fuel shortages.”

“We knew that these sanctions were going to take some time to be felt, because we knew the North Koreans, based on information that the Chinese had shared with us and others had shared with us, had basically stockpiled a lot of inventory early in the year when they saw the new administration coming in in anticipation of things perhaps changing,” Tillerson said. “So I think what we’re seeing is a combined effect of these inventories are now being exhausted, and the supply coming in has been reduced. But there are indications that there are shortages, of fuel in particular, and I think we will see latent evidence of the impact of the other sanctions that have been put in place.”

Despite the Trump administration, like others before it, insisting that “all options are on the table,” the only way to persuade North Korea to suspend its nuclear and missile programs—as has been done in the past—is likely through negotiations involving the U.S., North Korea, and other countries in the region. The last multilateral effort to attempt this was the six-party talks that involved the two countries, China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea. Of these nations, China is believed to have the most influence on the North, though China experts point out the relationship is probably at its lowest point in history.

Russia, which during the Cold War played the role China now does, also has some influence; Japan’s policy on the North hews closely to that of the U.S., and South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who was elected partly on his promise of closer relations with the North, said at the UN “the situation surrounding the North Korean nuclear issue needs to be managed stably so that tensions will not become overly intensified or accidental military clashes will not destroy peace.” Which brings us back to the sanctions that Trump announced Thursday. When asked if dialogue was still possible with North Korea, he replied: “Why not?”