Trump's "largest-ever sanctions" on North Korea may not matter

Experts say the sheer number of sanctioned entities is indeed large but it’s unclear whether the sanctions will have much impact.
February 23, 2018, 7:45pm

President Donald Trump on Friday announced what he called “the largest-ever set of new sanctions” against North Korea that target “sources of revenue and fuel that the regime uses to fund its nuclear program and sustain its military.”

The sanctions (see PDF below) apply to 56 shipping and trading companies linked to North Korea, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. Experts said the sheer number of sanctioned entities is indeed large, but they also said it’s unclear whether the sanctions will have much impact.

“This will significantly hinder the Kim regime’s capacity to conduct evasive maritime activities that facilitate illicit coal and fuel transports, and erode its abilities to ship goods through international waters,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “The president has made it clear to companies worldwide that if they choose to help fund North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, they will not do business with the United States.”

One of the leading independent experts on North Korea sanctions was more skeptical about the potential impact. The listed entities mostly include “easy targets,” according to Andrea Berger, a senior research associate at James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

“Over half of those are North Korean-based shipping companies and North Korean-flagged vessels,” Berger said. “So the disruption there is going to be fairly negligible, probably.”

The other entities span the globe, including a Taiwanese citizen and companies or ships that the Treasury Department said were “located, registered, or flagged” in China, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Marshall Islands, Tanzania, Panama, and Comoros. North Korea often uses these so-called “flags of convenience” on ships in an effort to evade sanctions.

Berger noted that recent rounds of sanctions have hindered North Korea’s ability to to do business, in part because the U.N. already requires countries to shun North Korean-flagged vessels or ships known to be linked to Pyongyang. She said it’s unlikely that the Trump administration’s new sanctions will provide foreign countries with “any additional legal authority” to take action against those vessels, though they might be wary of running afoul of the Treasury Department and losing access to the U.S. financial system.

READ: South Korea seized a ship suspected of sneaking oil into North Korea

That said, Berger noted that the Trump administration appears to be continuing its effort “to not leave any stone unturned” as the U.S. works to further isolate the Hermit Kingdom. The Treasury Department said the sanctions specifically target vessels that North Korea uses to transport coal and oil, including several vessels are capable of carrying $5.5 million worth of coal at a time.

“North Korea’s ability to engage in international trade and finance relies on its ability to move goods and money,” Berger said. “What this is doing is really trying to rip apart that connective tissue.”

Of course, the U.S. has been sanctioning North Korea for years with little to show for it. Kim Jong Un’s regime has mastered the art of dodging sanctions and continued to test nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles despite the best efforts of the U.S. and U.N. to choke off its ability to do business overseas. In recent months, Chinese ships have been caught supplying North Korean tankers with oil. Trump has also accused Russia of helping North Korea with sanctions busting.

The Treasury Department said Friday that North Korea “is known to employ deceptive shipping practices.” (Photos via Treasury Department.)

The Treasury Department shared photos of a North Korean oil tanker that was caught “falsifying its vessel information” to make it appear to be based in China. (Photos via Treasury Department.)

After a wave of U.N. sanctions following a 2016 nuclear test, Bill Newcomb, a former member of the U.N. Panel of Experts on North Korea, explained to VICE News that part of the problem is that most countries don’t have the funding or manpower to inspect every ship that arrives in port and verify that it isn’t somehow linked to North Korea.

"They don't have the customs officials to inspect the cargo and recognize things that could be parts of a missile system, or analyze a shipment of metal to see if it's military or arms-related goods," Newcomb said, adding that North Korea tends to seek out countries with loosely regulated financial systems or places where bribery is rampant. "Wherever they can operate or there's less oversight, they tend to find it."

Joshua Stanton, a lawyer who previously helped draft North Korea sanctions for the U.S. government, suggested the administration needs to do more to go after Chinese financial institutions that do business with North Korea.

“I’ll believe the Trump administration’s pressure is really ‘maximum’ when I see nine-digit penalties against Chinese banks, like the ones the Obama administration imposed in 2014 on European banks that broke Iran sanctions,” Stanton said. He added that Friday’s actions are “years overdue” and “will require careful follow-up as Pyongyang renames and reflags its fleet.”

The sanctions were announced just hours after Trump’s daughter Ivanka arrived in South Korea on Friday to attend the closing ceremony of the Winter Olympics. A North Korean delegation, which includes a top military general, is also in Pyeongchang for the event, but the two sides are not expected to meet.

READ: North Korea bailed on Mike Pence two hours before a secret Olympic meeting

Vice President Mike Pence reportedly tried to hold secret talks with Kim Jong Un’s sister earlier this month during the Olympics, but the meeting was cancelled at the last minute when the North Koreans pulled out.

Cover image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, celebrates what was said to be the test launch of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile at an undisclosed location in North Korea in this undated file photo distributed on Sept. 16, 2017, by the North Korean government. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP, File)