NEW YORK — President Trump announced new U.S. financial sanctions Thursday that target North Korea and foreign companies or individuals that do business with the rogue nation, whose escalating nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities have reached what U.S. officials consider a crisis point.
The new penalties seek to leverage the dominance of the U.S. financial system by forcing nations to choose whether to do business with the United States or the comparatively tiny economy of North Korea. U.S. officials acknowledged that like other sanctions, these may not deter North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s drive to threaten the United States with a nuclear weapon but are aimed at slowing him down.
Trump’s executive order grants the Treasury Department additional authority that Trump said would help cut off international trade and financing that Kim’s dictatorship uses to support its banned weapons programs.
“North Korea’s nuclear program 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 in brief public remarks during a meeting with the leaders of South Korea and Japan to discuss strategy to confront Pyongyang.
He added that the United States continues to seek a “complete denuclearization of North Korea.”
Significantly, Trump also said that Chinese President Xi Jinping had ordered Chinese banks to cease conducting business with North Korean entities. Trump praised Xi, calling the move “very bold” and “somewhat unexpected.”
China is North Korea’s chief ally and economic lifeline. Some 90 percent of North Korean economic activity involves China, and Chinese entities are the main avenue for North Korea’s very limited financial transactions in the global economy. China is also suspected of turning a blind eye to some of the smuggling and sanctions-busting operations that have allowed Pyongyang to rapidly develop sophisticated long-range missiles despite international prohibitions on parts and technology.
All U.N. sanctions have to be acceptable to China, which holds veto power. China’s recent willingness to punish its fellow communist state signals strong disapproval of North Korea’s international provocations, but China and fellow U.N. Security Council member Russia have also opposed some of the toughest economic measures that could be applied, such as banking restrictions that would affect Chinese and other financial institutions.
“We continue to call on all responsible nations to enforce and implement sanctions,” Trump said.
He added that the order will give Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin the “discretion to target any foreign bank knowingly facilitating specific transactions tied to trade with North Korea.”
President Trump meets with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during the U.N. General Assembly in New York on Thursday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
A White House fact sheet said that under the executive order, airplanes or ships that have visited North Korea will be banned for 180 days from visiting the United States, a move to crack down on illicit trade.
“This significantly expands Treasury’s authority to target those who enable this regime . . . wherever they are located,” Mnuchin said.
U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said the goal is to “cut the revenue so they could do less of their reckless behavior.”
“It doesn’t mean that it will necessarily change Kim’s attitude,” Haley said.
Trump’s announcement came as he has sought to rally international support for confronting Pyongyang during four days of meetings here at the U.N. General Assembly. In a speech to the world body Tuesday, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” the North if necessary and referred derisively to Kim as “Rocket Man.” But the president and his aides have emphasized that they are continuing to do what they can to put economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to avoid a military conflict.
“We don’t want war,” Haley told reporters. “At the same time, we’re not going to run scared. If for any reason North Korea attacks the United States or our allies, we’re going to respond.”
U.S. officials say there is still time and room for diplomacy if North Korea shows that talking could be productive. Other countries, including China and Russia, are pressing Washington to make a greater effort toward talks and an eventual bargain that could buy Kim out of his weapons without toppling his regime.
The shape of a possible deal has been evident for years, but Kim has raised the stakes, and perhaps the price, with his rapid development toward the capability to launch a nuclear-equipped intercontinental ballistic missile at U.S. territory.
Asked why North Korea might entertain such an international deal when Trump appears poised to undermine a similar one with Iran, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said a North Korea deal would be designed very differently.
“While the threat is the same — it’s nuclear weapons — the issues surrounding North Korea are very different than the issues surrounding Iran,” Tillerson said Wednesday. “Iran is a large nation, 60 million people; North Korea is a smaller nation, the hermit kingdom, living in isolation. Very different set of circumstances that would be the context and also the contours of an agreement with North Korea, many aspects of which don’t apply between the two.”
In recent weeks, the Security Council has approved two rounds of economic sanctions but also left room for further penalties. For example, the sanctions put limits on the nation’s oil imports but did not impose a full embargo, as the United States has suggested it supports. The Trump administration has signaled it also wants a full ban on the practice of sending North Korean workers abroad for payments that largely go to the government in Pyongyang.
“We are witnessing a very dangerous confrontation spiral,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a speech to the United Nations, filling in for President Vladimir Putin, who skipped the forum. “We resolutely condemn the nuclear missile adventures of Pyongyang in violation of Security Council resolutions. But military hysteria is not just an impasse; it’s disaster. . . . There is no alternative to political and diplomatic ways of settling the nuclear situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
Mnuchin emphasized that “this action is in no way specifically directed at China,” and he said he called Chinese officials to inform them ahead of the U.S. announcement.
Mnuchin also said the unilateral U.S. action is not a rejection of separate Security Council sanctions and the international diplomacy they require. Similar to unilateral U.S. sanctions on Iran applied during the Obama administration, the new U.S. restrictions seek to leverage the power of the U.S. financial system.
“Foreign financial institutions are now on notice that, going forward, they can choose to do business with the United States or with North Korea, but not both,” Mnuchin said.
Sitting down with South Korean President Moon Jae-in before the trilateral discussion with Japan, Trump said the nations are “making a lot of progress.”
Moon praised Trump’s speech to the United Nations, saying through a translator that “North Korea has continued to make provocations and this is extremely deplorable and this has angered both me and our people, but the U.S. has responded firmly and in a very good way.”
The Security Council had also applied tough new export penalties in August, and Tillerson said Wednesday that there are signs those restrictions are having an economic effect.
“We have some indications that there are beginning to appear evidence of fuel shortages,” Tillerson said in a briefing for reporters. “And look, we knew that these sanctions were going to take some time to be felt because we knew the North Koreans . . . 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. 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.”
There is no sign, however, that economic penalties are having any effect on the behavior of the Kim regime and its calculation that nuclear tests and other provocations will ensure its protection or raise the price of any eventual settlement with the United States and other nations.
Trump said the United States had been working on the North Korea problem for 25 years, but he asserted that previous administrations had “done nothing, which is why we are in the problem we are in today.”
The United States has been trying to undermine the economic underpinnings of the North Korean nuclear weapons program through executive orders and other measures extending back to the Clinton administration.
Each new sanction from Washington has been followed by evasive measures by Pyongyang and then another attempt from Washington to ramp up pressure. Earlier sanctions restricted trade between U.S. companies and businesses involved with the North Korean regime and its weapons efforts. Until recently, however, such sanctions had limited effects because North Korea continued an expansive trade with other countries, mainly China.
In recent years, the United States has sought to expand the economic pressure by working through the international banking system, where the country has particular leverage because so much of international trade is conducted in dollars. The “vast majority of international transactions are denominated in dollars, the world’s reserve currency,” a congressional report found last year.
Even when the companies are outside the United States, trade conducted in dollars typically must run through U.S. banks, and last year that provided the Obama administration an opportunity to interrupt such business.
In November 2016, a special measure implemented by the Treasury Department barred U.S. banks from providing the accounts that handle such transactions for any North Korean bank or any party acting on its behalf. The measure essentially cut off North Korean banks from any trade denominated in U.S. dollars.
North Korea, however, has continued to conduct such trades by using front companies in third countries, at least some of which are in China.
The new executive order expands the U.S. pressure on the North by allowing the Treasury Department to single out those front companies — and any banks helping to finance any trade with North Korea — for sanctions. Those sanctions would cut off trade with those companies or forbid them from conducting transactions in dollars.
Abby Phillip in Washington and Peter Whoriskey contributed to this report.
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