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.”